Tag Archives: chest tube

EAST 2019 #3: Chest Tube vs Pigtail

I love stuff about chest tubes. There are so many opinions and so little data to back them up. And now here’s another EAST 2019 Annual Assembly paper from the University of Arizona at Tucson on chest tubes! The traditional dogma, and something that I’ve promoted for some time, is that the only size chest tube that should be used for hemothorax is big (36 Fr) or bigger (40 Fr). There have been a few abstracts and published papers over the past 7 years that are trying to change this assumption. Will they be successful?

The first work on this was a paper published in 2012 by this same group in Tucson. It was a prospective study that included 36 patients with pigtails and 191 with 32 Fr – 40 Fr chest tubes over 30 months. Average initial drain output was the same, and there were no differences in tube in time, complications, or failure rate.

A related abstract was then presented by this group at the 2013 EAST Annual Assembly, but it doesn’t look like this one got published. It was a small, prospective study that enrolled 40 of 72 eligible patients over 20 months and compared pigtail catheters vs 28 Fr chest tubes. They found that chest wall and tube site pain was less with a pigtail, and that failure and complication rates, tube in time, and hospital stay were the same.

And then in 2017 more related work was presented at EAST from the group, and was later published in the World Journal of Surgery. This study was the culmination of 7 years of experience, and included nearly 500 subjects. Once again, initial drainage output was the same, as were complications and failure rate. The authors concluded that a multi-center trial was need to provide additional support.

And that brings us up to EAST 2019. Now the authors are presenting a single-center study comparing 14 Fr pigtail vs 28-36 Fr chest tubes for hemothorax and pneumthorax. What’s different about this one? For the first time, the subjects were randomized between pigtail and chest tube in an effort to eliminate selection bias.

Here are the factoids:

  • A total of 43 patients were enrolled, but the number excluded was not given
  • Although baseline characteristics of the two groups were identical, several differences approached clinical significance: percent blunt trauma, flail chest, insertion day, and initial chest tube output
  • The authors concluded that there were no differences in initial chest tube output, failure rate, tube days, and lengths of stay. However, perceived pain was less.
  • They again noted that a multi-center trial should be performed to confirm these results

Here are some questions for the authors and presenter to consider in advance to help them prepare for audience questions:

  • What’s new and different with this study? The University of Arizona – Tucson has been studying pigtails since 2009. Tell us about the progression of this work and how the current study fits in.
  • How many patients were excluded? This is very important, especially if this number is high. What were the exclusion criteria exactly?
  • What did your power analysis show? The overall enrollment numbers are low, which may throw your statistics into doubt. This is especially true since your primary outcome showed that pigtail and chest tube outputs were the same but with a p=0.06! More patients may have helped show the desired difference.
  • Were the pigtail and chest tube groups really “similar?” There were more penetrating injuries in the chest tube group. Could this have an impact on clotted vs non-clotted blood in the chest and the ability of a pigtail to drain it? And the median pigtail insertion date was 1.5 days later than for chest tubes, which is clinically significant. Could this allow time for defibrination of the hemothorax, resulting in better drainage?
  • And what’s next? Will I see you again at EAST 2020 or 2021 with a larger prospective study? Or a multi-center one?

I’m looking forward to hearing this one in person!


  • A single center prospective randomized study comparing the effectiveness of 14 French percutaneous catheters (pigtail) versus 28-36 French chest tube in the management of traumatic hemothorax/hemopneumothorax. EAST 2019 Paper #13.
  • EAST abstract presentation 2013.
  • EAST abstract presentation 2017.

Chest Tube Repositioning – Final Answer

So you’re faced with a chest tube that “someone else” inserted, and the followup chest xray shows that the last drain hole is outside the chest. What to do?

Well, as I mentioned, there is very little written on this topic, just dogma. So here are some practical tips on avoiding or fixing this problem:

  • Don’t let it happen to you! When inserting the tube, make sure that it’s done right! I don’t recommend making large skin incisions just to inspect your work. Most tubes can be inserted through a 2cm incision, but you can’t see into the depths of the wound. There are two tricks:
    • In adults with a reasonable BMI, the last hole is in when the tube markings show 12cm (bigger people need bigger numbers, though)
    • After insertion, get into the habit of running a finger down the radiopaque stripe on the tube all the way to the chest wall. If you don’t feel a hole (which is punched through the stripe), this will confirm that the it is inside, and that the tube actually goes into the chest. You may laugh, but I’ve seen them placed under the scapula. This even looks normal on chest xray!
  • Patients with a high BMI may not need anything done. The soft tissue will probably keep the hole occluded. If there is no air leak, just watch it.
  • If the tube was just put in and the wound has just been prepped and dressed, and the hole is barely outside the rib line, you might consider repositioning it a centimeter or two. Infection is a real concern, so if in doubt, go to the next step.
  • Replace the tube, using a new site. Yes, it’s a nuisance and requires more anesthetic and possibly sedation, but it’s better than treating an empyema in a few days.

Related posts:

Chest Tube Repositioning – Part 2

Yesterday I presented the problem of the malpositioned chest tube, specifically one that is not completely in the pleural space. This one is way out:

So what do the doctor books say? Well, the first thing you will discover if you try to look it up is that THERE IS NO LITERATURE ON THIS COMMON PROBLEM! There are a few papers on tubes placed in the fissure and tubes inserted into the lung parenchyma. But there are only a few mentions of tubes with holes still outside the chest.

I’ve gotten a number of comments, including “you can push them in a little”, “take it out and put in another”, and “never push them in.” Since we don’t have any science to guide us, we have to use common sense. But remember, I’ve shown you plenty of examples where something seems reasonable, but turns out to be ineffective or downright harmful.

There are three principles that guide me when I face this problem:

  • Prevention is preferable to intervention
  • Do no (or as little as possible) further harm
  • Be creative

Tomorrow, I’ll finish this series and provide some tips and guidelines to help manage this problem using the principles outlined above.

What To Do When The Chest Tube Is Not In The Right Place

It happens from time to time. Your patient has a hemothorax or pneumothorax and you insert a chest tube. Well done! But then the xray comes back:

The last hole in the drain is outside the chest! What to do???

Here are the questions that need to be answered:

  • Pull it out, leave it, or push it in?
  • Does length of time the tube has been in make a difference?
  • Does BMI matter?

Leave comments below regarding what you do. Hints and final answers next!

Best of AAST #6: Antibiotics For Chest Tubes??

For as long as I can remember (nearly 50 years worth of literature) there has been some debate about giving antibiotics after chest tube insertion to decrease the infection rate. The pendulum moved back and forth for decades, never getting very far into the “give antibiotics” side. It’s been quite a while since I remember any new papers on this, and I thought the debate had been resolved in favor of never using them.

But then I see an abstract from the AAST multi-institutional trials group studying presumptive antibiotics after chest tube insertion! They conducted a prospective, observational study at 22 Level I trauma centers, enrolling nearly 2,000 patients. They matched patients in antibiotic and no antibiotic groups, arriving at (only) 272 patients in each group.

Here are the results:

Bottom line: First, it’s a little disappointing that the numbers were so low with a trial that includes 22 trauma centers. Did they have a hard time finding centers that would give antibiotics? Or was it just hard to match patients for the variables they were looking at? Regardless, there were no significant differences in infectious complications, and a non-clinically significant difference in ICU stay with antibiotics.

Why won’t this die? If there are so few papers that show an actual benefit from giving antibiotics after chest tube insertion with 50 years of data, then it’s very unlikely that it will ever be shown to be necessary!

Reference: Presumptive antibiotics for tube thoracostomy for traumatic pneumothorax. Session XXII Paper 49, AAST 2018.