Category Archives: Thorax

Flying Or Diving After Traumatic Pneumothorax: Part 2

Yesterday, I wrote about the accepted management of and delay in flying due to traumatic pneumothorax. I republished the post because of the very recent acceptance for publication of a paper from Oregon Health Science University in Portland. The authors specifically tried to assess timing of chest tube removal and long-distance flight, and to measure the risk of pneumothorax recurrence or other complications.

The authors performed a retrospective review of a series of military patients who had sustained chest injuries that were treated with chest tubes over a 5 year period from 2008 to 2012. After tube removal and a pneumothorax-free period of at least 24 hours (by chest x-ray), the patients were then transported by air from the military theater back to the United States.

Here are the factoids:

  • Of 517 patients screened in the military trauma registry database, only 73 were available for study after applying exclusion criteria
  • Subjects were predominantly young and male, as one would expect from the injured military population, and 74% were injured by a penetrating mechanism
  • Median time that the chest tube was in place was 4 days, and median time from tube removal to flight was 2.5 days
  • All patients had post-flight documentation available for review, but only half (37) had in-flight documentation available
  • Nearly half (40%) had positive pressure ventilation in place during the flight
  • Five patients had “in-flight medical concerns” (4 were ventilated), but none were related to the pneumothorax. The four ventilated patients had ventilator issues, the non-vented patient had “self-limited discomfort without evidence of respiratory distress.”
  • None of the subjects developed a recurrent pneumothorax, either post-flight or over the following 30 days

The authors conclude that air travel after tube removal and a 24-72 hour observation period “appears safe.”

Bottom line: Not so fast! This is yet another small, retrospective study making grand claims. The study group is a very unique population: healthy, fit young men with penetrating injury. Your average civilian trauma patient is older, less healthy, and usually has a blunt mechanism with multiple rib fractures. In-flight documentation was not available in half of the cases. And a full medical team was present on the aircraft had a problem actually occurred.

Contrast this with a civilian patient on a commercial aircraft with very limited medical equipment and expertise on board. What could go wrong? I definitely do not recommend changing our practice on these patients yet based on this one paper. Until we have better guidance (more good papers) stick to the usual wait time to ensure a safe flight for your patient.

Reference: Trauma patients are safe to fly 72 hours after tube thoracostomy removal. J Trauma, published ahead of print, May 18 2018.

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Flying Or Diving After Traumatic Pneumothorax: Part 1

Today, I’m dusting off an old post on flying and diving after pneumothorax. This shows the thinking up until last year. Tomorrow, I’ll write about a new paper that suggests that we can shorten the “no-fly” time considerably.

Hint: no changes to the diving recommendations. One pneumothorax is likely to ground you forever.

Patients who have sustained a traumatic pneumothorax occasionally ask how soon they can fly in an airplane or scuba dive after they are discharged. What’s the right answer?

The basic problem has to do with Boyle’s Law (remember that from high school?). The volume of a gas varies inversely with the barometric pressure. So the lower the pressure, the larger a volume of gas becomes. Most of us hang out pretty close to sea level, so this is not an issue. But for flyers or divers, it may be.


Helicopters typically fly only one to two thousand feet above the ground, so the air pressure is about the same as standing on the earth. However, flying in a commercial airliner is different. Even though the aircraft may cruise at 30,000+ feet, the inside of the cabin remains considerably lower though not at sea level. Typically, the cabin altitude goes up to about 8,000 to 9,000 feet. Using Boyle’s law, any volume of gas (say, a pneumothorax in your chest), will increase by about a third on a commercial flight.

The physiologic effect of this increase depends upon the patient. If they are young and fit, they may never know anything is happening. But if they are elderly and/or have a limited pulmonary reserve, it may compromise enough lung function to make them symptomatic. And having a medical problem in an aluminum tube at 30,000 feet is never good.

Commercial guidelines for travel after pneumothorax range from 2-6 weeks. The Aerospace Medical Association published guidelines that state that 2-3 weeks is acceptable. The Orlando Regional Medical Center reviewed the literature and devised a practice guideline that has a single Level 2 recommendation that commercial air travel is safe 2 weeks after resolution of the pneumothorax, and that a chest x-ray should be obtained immediately prior to travel to confirm resolution.


Diving would seem to be pretty safe, right? Any pneumothorax would just shrink while the diver was at depth, then re-expand to the original size when he or she surfaces, right?

Not so fast. You are forgetting why the pneumothorax was there in the first place. The lung was injured, most likely via tearing it, penetration by something sharp, or popping a bleb. If the injured area has not completely healed, then air may begin to escape through it again. And since the air used in scuba diving is delivered under pressure, this could result in a tension pneumothorax.  This is disastrous underwater!

Most injuries leading to pneumothorax heal completely. However, if there are bone spicules stuck in the lung or more complicated parenchymal injuries from penetrating injury, they may never completely heal. This makes the diver susceptible to a tension pneumothorax anytime they use their regulator.

Bottom line: Most patients can safely travel on commercial aircraft 2 weeks after resolution of pneumothorax. Ideally, a chest xray should be obtained shortly before travel to confirm that it is gone. Helicopter travel is okay at any time, since they typically fly at 1,500 feet or less.

Divers should see a physician trained in dive medicine to evaluate their injury and imaging prior to making another dive.

Tomorrow: new info on flying after pneumothorax


  • Divers Alert Network – Pneumothorax – click to download
  • Practice Guideline, Orlando Regional Medical Center. Air travel following traumatic pneumothorax. October 2009.
  • Medical Guidelines for Airline Travel, 2nd edition. Aerospace Medical Association. Aviation, Space, and Environmental Medicine 74(5) Section II Supplement, May 2003.
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Off-Label Use of the Foley (Urinary) Catheter

Foley catheters are a mainstay of medical care in patients who need control or measurement of urine output. Leave it to trauma surgeons to find warped, new ways to use them!

Use of these catheters to tamponade penetrating cardiac injuries has been recognized for decades (see picture, 2 holes = 2 catheters!). Less well appreciated is their use to stop bleeding from other penetrating wounds.

Foley catheters can be inserted into just about any small penetrating wound with bleeding that does not respond to direct pressure. (Remember, direct pressure is applied by one or two fingers only, with no flat dressings underneath to diffuse the pressure). Arterial bleeding, venous bleeding or both can be controlled with this technique.

In general, the largest catheter with the largest possible balloon should be selected. It is then inserted directly into the wound until the entire balloon is inside the body. Inflate the balloon using saline until firm resistance is encounted, and the bleeding hopefully stops. Important: be sure to clamp the end of the catheter so the bleeding doesn’t find the easy way out!

Use of catheter tamponade buys some time, but these patients need to be in the OR. In general, once other life threatening issues are dealt with in the resuscitation room, the patient should be moved directly to the operating room. In rare cases, an angiogram may be needed to help determine the type of repair. However, in the vast majority of cases, the surgeon will know exactly where the injury is and further study is not needed. The catheter is then prepped along with most of the patient so that the operative repair can be completed.

Tomorrow: an off-label use for this catheter in abdominal trauma!

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Chest Tubes: Size Doesn’t Matter – Part 2

A few days ago, I wrote about a paper that seemed to suggest that using a smaller chest tube (28-32 Fr) vs larger ones (36-40 Fr). The results suggested that their function was very similar. I emphasized that I thought the result was intriguing, because I’m of the opinion that bigger is better for getting clotted blood out. However, I am amenable to changing my mind based on newer, better data.

But I did caution readers that I would like to see more data. One study should never change your practice! Then I see a lot of chatter on Twitter about another study from 2016 that looks at even smaller tubes, with people saying they will now switch to pigtail catheters (12 Fr)!!

First, not a logical progression of thinking there. And second, let’s take an actual look at the paper. It’s from an emergency medicine group in Fukui, Japan, which retrospectively reviewed their 7 year experience with using a small (20-22 Fr) vs large (28 Fr) tubes. They identified a total of 124 chest tube insertions to compare, 68 small and 56 large.

Now let’s look at the factoids:

  • Demographics, mechanism, and ISS were the same between groups
  • Duration of insertion and initial drainage were also the same between groups
  • Complication rates were similar, with 1 empyema and 2 retained hemothoraces in each group
  • Additional tubes were place in 2 patients with small tubes vs 4 with large tubes
  • Thoracotomy was performed in 2 patients with small tubes vs 1 with a large tube

Based on all of this, the authors concluded that there was no difference in drainage efficacy, complications, or need for additional invasive procedures.

Wait a minute!! Again, if you only read the abstract, you might be led to start using ever smaller chest tubes. But read the entire paper! There are many problems with this paper, including:

  • It’s a very small, retrospective review. This automatically means that the statistical power is suspect.
  • Why did they only document 124 insertions over 7 years?? That’s about one every 3 weeks! Either a lot of data are missing or they are not very busy. But Fukui Prefectural Hospital has over 1000 beds! So it’s the former, not the latter.
  • The retrospective nature means it is not possible to determine why a particular tube size was chosen. Roll of the dice? This fact alone introduces a huge potential for selection bias. Was a smaller tube selected because the hemothorax looked smaller? Probably! The fact that 4 patients with larger tubes had another one placed suggests that they were being used for larger collections. And patients with higher ISS tended to get bigger tubes.

Bottom line: Don’t change your practice based on this paper. And certainly don’t choose to use even smaller pigtails. And of course, always critically read any paper that you like to make sure you are not cherry picking the ones you choose to believe. IMHO, it’s still best to use big (36 Fr) or bigger (40 Fr).

Reference: Small tube thoracostomy (20-22 Fr) in emergent management of chest trauma. Injury 48:1884-1887, 2016.

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Chest Tube Size Doesn’t Matter?

It’s great when you read a study that supports your own biases. But it’s not pleasant at all when you find one that refutes what you’ve been teaching for years. Well, I found one of those and I wanted to share it with you.

I’ve always said that there are only two sizes of chest tube for trauma, big (36Fr) and bigger (40Fr). Although there was never any good literature, it seemed intuitive that a large tube would help ensure drainage of bigger clots if hemothorax was present.

A multicenter observational study was carried out that looked at 353 chest tube insertions. This work monitored retained hemothorax or pneumothorax, the need for tube reinsertion or invasive procedure due to incomplete drainage, and pain during insertion.

Here are the factoids:

  • There was roughly a 50:50 large (36-40Fr) vs small (28-32Fr) mix of chest tubes
  • Tubes inserted for hemothorax were also a 50:50 mix of large vs small
  • The initial amount of blood out was small and about the same for both groups
  • There was no significant difference in pneumonia, retained hemothorax, or empyema
  • The need for an invasive procedure (VATS or thoracotomy) was about 11% in both groups
  • Interestingly, there was no difference in visual analog pain score between the groups either.

Bottom line: Basically, large tube and small tube were the same. So maybe chest tube size selection doesn’t matter as much as we (I?) think. It seems to make sense to select a tube size based on your patient’s chest wall, not dogma. Although subjective pain seems to be the same as well, pain and sedation management are key because this is not a fun procedure for the patient, regardless of tube size. I’m not fully convinced yet, and would like to see an additional confirmation study if possible.

Reference: Does size matter? A prospective analysis of 28–32 versus 36–40 French chest tube size in trauma. J Trauma 72(2):422-427, 2012.

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