Tag Archives: abdomen

How To: The Serial Abdominal Exam

How often have you seen this in an admitting history and physical exam note? “Admit for observation; serial abdominal exams.” We say it so often it almost doesn’t mean anything. And during your training, did anyone really teach you how to do it? For most trauma professionals, I believe the answer is no.

Yet the serial abdominal exam is a key part of the management of many clinical issues, for both trauma patients as well as those with acute care surgical problems.

Here are the key points:

  • Establish a baseline. As an examiner, you need to be able to determine if your patient is getting worse. So you need to do an initial exam as a basis for comparisons.
  • Pay attention to analgesics. Make sure you know what was given last, and when. You do not need to withhold pain medications. They will reduce pain, but not eliminate it. You just need enough information to determine if the exam is getting worse with the same amount of medication on board.
  • Perform regular exams. It’s one thing to write down that serial exams will be done, but someone actually has to do them. How often? Consider how quickly your patient’s status could change, given the clinical possibilities you have in mind. In general, every 4 hours should be sufficient. Every shift is not. And be thorough!
  • Document, document, document. A new progress note should be written, dated and timed, every time you see your patient. Leave a detailed description of how the patient looks, vital signs, pertinent labs, and of course, exact details of the physical exam.
  • Practice good handoffs. Yes, we understand that you won’t be able to see the patient shift after shift. So when it’s time to handoff, bring the person relieving you and do the exam with them. You can describe the pertinent history, the exam to date, the analgesic history, and allow them to establish a baseline that matches yours. And of course, make sure they can contact you if there are any questions.

EAST 2017 #2: CT Scan After Recent Operative Exploration for Penetrating Trauma

The general rule for penetrating trauma, especially gunshots to the abdomen, is that you don’t need to obtain a CT scan to help you decide to go to the OR. (Of course, there are a few exceptions.) And the corollary has always been that you don’t need to get a CT scan after you operate for penetrating trauma.

But the group at UCSF is questioning this. They retrospectively looked at 5 years of data on patients who underwent trauma laparotomy without preoperative imaging. They focused on new findings on CT that were not reported during the initial operation.

Here are the factoids:

  • 230 of 328 patients undergoing a trauma lap did not have preop imaging
  • 85 of the 230 patients (37%) underwent immediate postop CT scan. These patients tended to have a gunshot mechanism and higher injury severity score.
  • Unreported injuries were found in 45% (!) and tended to be GU and orthopedic in nature
  • 47% of those with unreported injuries found required some sort of intervention

Bottom line: This is a very interesting and potentially practice changing study. However, there is some opportunity for bias since only select patients underwent postop scanning. Nevertheless, one in five patients who did get a postop scan had an injury that required some sort of intervention. This study begs to be reworked to further support it, and to develop specific criteria for postop scanning.

Questions/comments for the authors/presenters:

  • Be sure to break down your results by gunshot vs stab. This will help formulate those criteria I mentioned above.
  • Specifically list the occult injuries and interventions required. In some studies, those “required interventions” are pretty weak (urology consult vs an actual procedure).
  • How exactly did the operating surgeons determine who to send to CT? Was it surgeon-specific (i.e. one surgeon always did, another never did)? Was it due to operative findings (hole near the kidney)? This is also needed when developing specific criteria for postop imaging.
  • Nice poster!

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

Related posts:

Reference: Routine tomography after recent operative exploration for penetrating trauma: what injuries do we miss?  Poster #14, EAST 2017.

How To: The Serial Abdominal Exam

How often have you seen this in an admitting history and physical exam note? “Admit for observation; serial abdominal exams.” We say it so often it almost doesn’t mean anything. And during your training, did anyone really teach you how to do it? For most trauma professionals, I believe the answer is no.

Yet the serial abdominal exam is a key part of the management of many clinical issues, for both trauma patients as well as those with acute care surgical problems. 

Here are the key points:

  • Establish a baseline. As an examiner, you need to be able to determine if your patient is getting worse. So you need to do an initial exam as a basis for comparisons. 
  • Pay attention to analgesics. Make sure you know what was given last, and when. You do not need to withhold pain medications. They will reduce pain, but not eliminate it. You just need enough information to determine if the exam is getting worse with the same amount of medication on board.
  • Perform regular exams. It’s one thing to write down that serial exams will be done, but someone actually has to do them. How often? Consider how quickly your patient’s status could change, given the clinical possibilities you have in mind. In general, every 4 hours should be sufficient. Every shift is not. And be thorough!
  • Document, document, document. A new progress note should be written, dated and timed, every time you see your patient. Leave a detailed description of how the patient looks, vital signs, pertinent labs, and of course, exact details of the physical exam.
  • Practice good handoffs. Yes, we understand that you won’t be able to see the patient shift after shift. So when it’s time to handoff, bring the person relieving you and do the exam with them. You can describe the pertinent history, the exam to date, the analgesic history, and allow them to establish a baseline that matches yours. And of course, make sure they can contact you if there are any questions.

Gunshots And CT Scan Of The Abdomen

Abdominal gunshots and CT scanning are usually thought to be mutually exclusive. The usual algorithm generally means a prompt trip to the operating room. But as with many things in the management of trauma, there are always exceptions. The key is to understand when exactly one of those exceptions is warranted.

Exception 1: Did it really enter the abdomen? Gunshots have enough energy that they usually do get inside. However, freaky combinations of trajectory and body habitus do occur. There are three tests that must be passed in order to entertain the possibility that the bullet may not have made it inside your patient: physiology, anatomy, and physical exam. For physiology, the patient must be completely hemodynamically stable. Anatomically, the trajectory must make sense. If the known wounds and angles allow a tangential course make sense, then fine. But if there is a hole in the epigastrium and another next to the spine, you have to assume the bullet went straight through. Finally, the physical exam must be normal. No peritonitis. No generalized guarding. Focal tenderness only in the immediate area of any wounds. If all three of these criteria are passed, then a CT can be obtained to demonstrate the trajectory.

Exception 2: Did it enter an unimportant area of the abdomen? Well, there’s really only one of these, and that’s the area involving the right lobe of the liver and extending posteriorly and lateral to it. If the bullet hole(s) involve only this area, and the three tests above are passed, CT may confirm an injury that can be observed. However, there should only be a minimal amount of free fluid, and no soft tissue changes of any kind adjacent to bowel.

Exception 3: A prompt trauma lap was performed, but you think you need more information afterwards. This is rare. The usual belief is that the eyes of the surgeon provide the gold standard evaluation during a trauma lap. For most low velocity injuries with an easily understood trajectory, this is probably true. However, high velocity injuries, those involving multiple projectiles, or complicated trajectories (side to side) can be challenging for even the most experienced surgeon. Some areas (think retroperitoneum or deep in the pelvis) are tough to visualize completely, especially when there’s blood everywhere. These are also the cases most likely to require damage control surgery, so once the patient has been temporarily closed, warmed and resuscitated, a quick trip to CT may be helful in revealing unexpected shrapnel, unsuspected injuries, or other issues that may change your management. Even a completely unsurprising scan can provide a higher sense of security.

Bottom line: CT of the abdomen and gunshots to that area may actually coexist in some special cases. Make sure the physiology, anatomy and physical exam criteria are passed first. I also make a point of announcing to all trainees that taking these patients to CT is not the norm, and carefully explain the rationale. Finally, apply the concept of the null hypothesis to this situation. Your null hypothesis should state that your patient does not need a CT after gunshot to the abdomen, and you have to work to prove otherwise!