Tag Archives: CT

How To Detect Bucket-handle Intestinal Injuries With CT Scan

A bucket-handle injury is a relatively uncommon complication of blunt trauma to the abdomen. It only occurs in a few percent of patients, but is much more likely if they have a seat belt sign.  The basic pathology is that the bowel mesentery (small bowel of sigmoid colon) gets pulled away from the intestinal wall.

This injury is problematic because it may take a few days for the bowel itself to die and perforate. Patients with no other injuries could potentially be discharged from the hospital before they become overtly symptomatic, leading to delayed treatment.

Here’s an image from my personal collection with not one, but four bucket-handle injuries.

Typical patients with suspected blunt intestinal injury are observed with good serial exams and a daily WBC count. If this begins to rise after 24 hours, there is a reasonable chance that this injury is present.

CT scan has not really been that reliable in past studies. There may be some “dirty mesentery”, which is contused and has a hematoma within it. But without a more convincing exam, it is difficult to convince yourself to operate immediately on these patients.

A paper was published by a group of radiologists at Duke University. It appears to be a case report disguised as a descriptive paper. It looks like they picked a few known bucket-handle injuries from their institution and back-correlated them with CT findings.

The authors called out the usual culprits:

  • Fluid between loops of bowel
  • Active bleeding in the mesentery
  • Bowel wall perfusion defects

But they also noted that traumatic abdominal wall hernias were highly with the injury as well. These are rare, but should bring intestinal injury to mind when seen.

With newer scanners, radiologists are better able to detect subtle areas of hypoperfusion as well. This is a fairly good indicator of injury, especially when adjacent bowel appears normally perfused. Here are two examples. The black arrows denote active extravasation, and the white ones an area of hypoperfusion.

The authors add bowel wall hypoperfusion as another finding that may point to a bucket-handle type injury

Bottom line: Hold the phone! Don’t change your practice yet. This paper is not able to demonstrate how good this radiographic sign is. Looking at other radiology literature, the specificity is about 90%. But remember, that means that if they don’t have the CT finding, that’s true only 90% of the time.

Unfortunately the sensitivity is only 10%. So if you see it on the scan, they’ve got a 1 in 10 chance of actually having the injury. That’s not good enough for me to run to the operating room.

Here’s what I recommend: if your patient has an unconcerning exam and any of the usual culprits (pelvic fluid, inter-loop fluid, dirty mesentery, thickened bowel loops, abdominal wall hernia), perform serial exams and get a WBC the next morning. If the exam worsens, operate. If the WBC rises, consider laparoscopy to see if you need to make a bigger incision. And if you see this new kid on the block, the hypoperfused bowel, consider laparoscopy right away. 

I’m sure the radiologists and the technology will keep getting better. But for now, blunt intestinal injury still requires patience, perceptiveness, and a little luck.


  • CT findings of traumatic bucket-handle mesenteric injuries. Am J Radiol 209:[email protected], 2017.
  • Multidetector CT of blunt abdominal trauma. Radiology 265(3):678–693, 2012.

What? Still Using MRI For Cervical Spine Clearance?

Cervical spine clearance as evolved considerably over the years. First, there were five views of the spine using plain radiography. Then there were three. Then we moved to CT scan with clinical clearance. And currently, many institutions are relying only on CT.

But MRI has been used as an adjunct for quite some time. Initially, it was the tie breaker in patients who had equivocal CT findings, and for a while it was used for clearance in obtunded patients. And thanks to conflicting literature and disparate studies, the occasional usage became more frequent.

The group at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles  noted that the percentage of patients undergoing MRI for cervical spine evaluation at their center slowly slowly crept up from 0.9% to 5.6% over a 10 year period. They designed a study to analyze the utility of this practice and inform their future practice.

Here are the factoids:

  • Over 9,000 patients had cervical spine CT during the 10-year study period; 513 (5.6%) were positive
  • Of the 513 CT-positive patients, 290 (56%) underwent an MRI. This showed:
    • Confirmation of the major injury in 250
    • Minor injury in 40
    • Clinically significant injury was seen in only 2 which was no surprise since they both had neurologic deficits
  • Of the 8,588 CT-negative patients, only 9 had clinically significant findings and 8 of them had neurologic deficits

Bottom line: So what have we learned here? First, MRI usage at Cedars-Sinai increased over time but was really not that useful. The main use was for imaging obtunded patients or those with an obvious neurologic deficit.

More than half of patients with positive CT scans also underwent MRI. If a major injury was seen on CT, MRI confirmed it. But if the CT findings were minor, none of the MRIs added any clinically significant findings in the absence of a neurologic deficit.

And what about MRI after negative CT? In the absence of a deficit, only one had a clinically significant finding (which only required a brace).

This study shows the wisdom of monitoring “how we do it.” There is sometimes some creepage away from what the literature shows is the best practice. The best way to remedy this is to do a good study, just like the authors did. They saw a slow change in practice, investigated it, and found that there was no good clinical reason for it. This gives the trauma program the ammunition to squelch the unwelcome behavior and return the clinicians to best practices.

Reference: Is MRI becoming the new CT for cervical spine clearance? Trends in MRI utilization at a Level I trauma center. J Tra publish ahead of print, DOI: 10.1097/TA.0000000000002752, 2020.

CT Contrast Via Intraosseous Catheter

The standard of care in vascular access in trauma patients is the intravenous route. Unfortunately, not all patients have veins that can be quickly accessed by prehospital providers. Introduction of the intraosseous device (IO) has made vascular access in the field much more achievable. And it appears that most fluids and medications can be administered via this route. But what about iodinated contrast agents via IO for CT scanning?

Physicians at Henry Ford Hospital in Detroit published a case report on the use of this route for contrast administration. They treated a pedestrian struck by a car with a lack of IV access sites by IO insertion in the proximal humerus, which took about 30 seconds. They then intubated using rapid sequence induction, with drugs injected through the IO device. They performed full CT scanning using contrast injected through the site using a power injector. Images were excellent, and ultimately the patient received an internal jugular catheter using ultrasound. The IO line was then discontinued.

This paper suggests that the IO line can be used as access for injection of CT contrast if no IV sites are available. Although it is a single human case, a fair amount of studies have been done on animals (goats?). The animal studies show that power injection works adequately with excellent flow rates.

The authors prefer using an IO placement site in the proximal humerus. This does seem to cause a bit more pain, and takes a little practice. A small xylocaine flush can be administered to reduce injection discomfort in awake patients. Additionally, the arm cannot be raised over the head for the torso portion of the scan.

Bottom line: CT contrast can be injected into an intraosseous line (IO) with excellent imaging results. Insert the IO in a site that you are comfortable with. I do not recommend power injection at this time. Although the marrow cavity can support it, the connecting tubing may not. Have your radiologist hand-inject and time the scan accordingly. And don’t be surprised if your radiology department doesn’t have a protocol for this!

Note: long term effects of iodinated contrast in the bone marrow are not known. For this reason, and because of smaller marrow cavities, this technique is not suitable for pediatric patients.

Reference: Intraosseous injection of iodinated computed tomography contrast agent in an adult blunt trauma patient. Annals Emerg Med 57(4):382-386, 2011.

What The Heck? CT Imaging Problem: The Answer

I received some good guesses about this image yesterday, but no one got the right answer.

The patient had sustained blunt trauma and was undergoing CT imaging. The scout for the abdominal CT showed some kind of weird debris that interfered with the image, but when we uncovered and looked at the patient, nothing was visible:

What the heck? If you look carefully at the left side of the image, you can see that the “debris field” is on the surface of the patient. We can’t see in 3-D on images, but the difference in appearance on the left and right sides looks like it this stuff is wrapping around the patient.

She was brought in by EMS with a warming blanket in place. On closer inspection, this was a thin, disposable blanket that heats up when removed from an airtight plastic pouch. These blankets contain thin pockets of a mineral mixture that looks like gravel. When exposed to air it heats up.

But on CT it looks like bone density material! When we looked at the patient, we were just lifting off the blanket that contained the offending material. Hence, we couldn’t find it.

Here’s a picture of one of these products. Note the six mineral pouches embedded in it., Don’t let this happen to you!


What The Heck? CT Imaging Problem

Here’s one for you. A patient is brought to you after a motor vehicle crash. You’ve completed your evaluation in the trauma resuscitation room, and you move off to CT for some imaging.

As the techs are preparing to do the abdominal CT, they perform the scout image to set up the study. This is what you see:

The arm was left down due to a fracture (note the splint along the forearm). But what is all that debris on the image? Other than a few abrasions here and there, nothing is visible on the skin in those areas.

What the heck? What do you think these are? Will they interfere with imaging? And what can you do about it?

Tweet or comment with your answers. I will explain all tomorrow.