Category Archives: Thorax

EAST 2017 #7: Pigtail vs Chest Tube – Does Size Matter?

I’ve been somewhat old school when it comes to chest tubes. Unlike some, I don’t believe that you have any control of where a chest tube goes if you are placing it in a closed chest. Only in the OR with an open one. And I’ve got plenty of x-rays to prove it.

And I used to think that chest tube size mattered when dealing with hemothorax. In theory, you need a big tube to get clots out, right?

Well, maybe not! The trauma group at the University of Arizona Tucson has previously done work on using 14 French pigtail catheters in lieu of a full-size tube. They will be presenting their extended experience with this concept at EAST 2017.

They have maintained a prospectively collected database of information on trauma patients with chest tubes for many years. This study focused only on those who had blood in their chest, either hemothorax (HTX) or hemopneumothorax (HPTX). They also looked at trends in their selection of chest drain tubes.

Here are the factoids:

  • Nearly 500 patients were treated with a tube for HTX or HPTX during the 7 year study period, 2/3 with a chest tube and 1/3 with a pigtail
  • Pigtails had more fluid drain initially (430cc vs 300cc, significant), and 1 less treatment day (4 vs 5, also significant)
  • Failure rate and insertion-related complications were the same (about 22% and 6%, respectively)
  • The group found that their use of pigtails steadily and significantly increased over the years

Bottom line: I’m coming around. The literature does appear to be tilting toward smaller tubes, and this longer-term study helps confirm that. How can this be? Although this is speculation on my part, it probably has to do with the fact that any size tube will drain liquid blood. And probably no size of tube will successfully get all the clot out. 

And certainly, smaller tubes are much better tolerated and do not require the degree of sedation that a mega-tube does. The authors suggest that a multi-center trial should be carried out to confirm this. For my part, I’m going to review the literature we have to date and consider modifying my own chest tube policy (see links below).

Questions and comments for the authors/presenters:

  • Where did you typically insert the pigtails? Anterior chest or classic chest tube position? Was it consistent?
  • Was/is the selection of tube type an attending surgeon specific choice, or did you implement a policy to direct them?
  • Did patient injury pattern or body habitus have any part in tube selection?
  • What about removal failures? That is, how many had to have a tube replaced, and how many went on to require VATS or other surgical procedure for drainage?
  • I enjoyed this provocative paper!

Click here to go the the EAST 2017 page to see comments on other abstracts.

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Reference: A prospective study of 7-year experience of using percutaneous 14-French pigtail catheter for traumatic hemothorax at a Level I trauma – size still does not matter. Quick Shot #4, EAST 2017.

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How To: Insert A Small Percutaneous Chest Tube

This short (10 minute) video demonstrated the technique for inserting small chest tubes, also known as “pigtail catheters.” It features Jessie Nelson MD from the Regions Hospital Department of Emergency Medicine. It was first shown at the third annual Trauma Education: The Next Education conference in September 2015, for which she was a course director.

Please feel free to leave any comments or ask any questions that you may have.

Related posts:
How To: Insert a regular chest tube for trauma
Pigtail catheters vs regular chest tubes
Tips for regular chest tubes 

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ED Thoracotomy Part 3: Clamping The Aorta

Finally, the chest is open and the tamponade has been relieved. But your patient has little volume. In order to conserve any circulating blood and pump it only to the heart and the head, it’s time to cross clamp the aorta. This task is best left to the surgeon, because it is not a simple matter.

First, you have to locate the aorta, ideally somewhere just above the diaphragm. Unfortunately, if the patient is hypovolemic it’s very difficult to distinguish the aorta from the esophagus, which lie right next to each other (see picture above). In order to make them feel different, insert a gastric tube through the mouth or nose.

Next, separate the aorta and esophagus. They are both covered by pleura. The structure nearest you without the tube in it will be the aorta. Sometimes it’s possible to use a finger to dissect through the pleura and around the aorta. However, the younger the patient, the tougher this tissue is. It may be necessary to incise the pleura with scissors while your assistant holds the lung anteriorly, our of the way.

Finally, once you can pass a finger completely around the aorta, use it to guide the placement of a gently curved DeBakey type clamp (see picture on the left). Squeeze it until it clicks once, and you are done! Now rapidly infuse warmed blood into the patient and run to the OR!

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