Tag Archives: elderly

Dysphagia and Cervical Spine Injury

Cervical spine injury presents a host of problems, but one of the least appreciated ones is dysphagia. Many clinicians don’t even think of it, but it is a relatively common problem, especially in the elderly. Swallowing difficulties may arise for several reasons:

  • Prevertebral soft tissue swelling may occur with high cervical spine injuries, leading to changes in the architecture of the posterior pharynx
  • Rigid cervical collars, such as the Miami J and Aspen, and halo vests all force the neck into a neutral position. Elderly patients may have a natural kyphosis, and this change in positioning may interfere with swallowing. Try extending your neck by about 30 degrees and see how much more difficult it is to swallow.
  • Patients with cervical fractures more commonly need a tracheostomy for ventilatory support and/or have a head injury, and these are well known culprits in dysphagia

A study in the Jan 2011 Journal of Trauma outlines the dysphagia problem seen with placement of a halo vest. They studied a series of 79 of their patients who were treated with a halo. A full 66% had problems with their swallowing evaluation. This problem was associated with a significantly longer ICU stay and a somewhat longer overall hospital stay.

Bottom line: Suspect dysphagia in all patients with cervical fractures, especially the elderly. Carry out a formal swallowing evaluation, and adjust the collar or halo if appropriate. 

Reference: Swallowing dysfunction in trauma patients with cervical spine fractures treated with halo-vest fixation. J Trauma 70(1):46-50, 2011.

Dysphagia and Cervical Spine Injury

Cervical spine injury presents a host of problems, but one of the least appreciated ones is dysphagia. Many clinicians don’t even think of it, but it is a relatively common problem, especially in the elderly. Swallowing difficulties may arise for several reasons:

  • Prevertebral soft tissue swelling may occur with high cervical spine injuries, leading to changes in the architecture of the posterior pharynx
  • Rigid cervical collars, such as the Miami J and Aspen, and halo vests all force the neck into a neutral position. Elderly patients may have a natural kyphosis, and this change in positioning may interfere with swallowing. Try extending your neck by about 30 degrees and see how much more difficult it is to swallow.
  • Patients with cervical fractures more commonly need a tracheostomy for ventilatory support and/or have a head injury, and these are well known culprits in dysphagia

A study in the Jan 2011 Journal of Trauma outlines the dysphagia problem seen with placement of a halo vest. They studied a series of 79 of their patients who were treated with a halo. A full 66% had problems with their swallowing evaluation. This problem was associated with a significantly longer ICU stay and a somewhat longer overall hospital stay.

Bottom line: Suspect dysphagia in all patients with cervical fractures, especially the elderly. Carry out a formal swallowing evaluation, and adjust the collar or halo if appropriate. 

Reference: Swallowing dysfunction in trauma patients with cervical spine fractures treated with halo-vest fixation. J Trauma 70(1):46-50, 2011.

More On Rib Fractures In The Elderly

In response to my post yesterday, Chris Nickson wrote:

“Is it possible there were physiologically young but chronologically old patients with isolated rib #s that were sent home from ED that were not included in the study?

I suspect that there are patients over 65 years old with isolated rib #s that can be safely discharged if follow up is bullet proof and pain well controlled.

However, I agree with your over riding message to not underestimate the elderly rib fracture!”

Very few authors do anything but stratify the elderly by age when they write research papers. They do not look at frailness, even though there are scoring systems to do just that. Plus, the retrospective nature of most of the literature (including this paper) preclude the use of such a scale.

Most of the elderly patients that we all see in the ED are selected out to be frail. The healthy ones stay at home and tough out a single rib fracture or even two. But the ones who are brought in are most likely having issues with pain or breathing, thus prompting the visit.

Bottom line: I agree that some elderly patients (the younger and healthier ones) could potentially be sent home from the ED with some pain medication. But the trauma professional needs to make sure that they are comfortable and can move about with well controlled discomfort. They also need good discharge instructions regarding returning to their primary physician or ED promptly if they start to have pain control or respiratory problems. If there is any doubt, bring them in to the hospital for a brief visit for pain control and pulmonary management.

Related post:

Rib Fractures In The Elderly

Just like children are not small adults, elderly patients are not just old adults. As I mentioned yesterday, mortality increases significantly as we get older such that the same injury is much more likely to kill an elder.

Rib fractures are no exception. A 10 year retrospective cohort study looked at the management and mortality of this problem in patients 65 and older at Harborview in Seattle. When comparing young and old patients with the same number of fractures and injury severity, death and pneumonia were twice as likely in the elderly (22% vs 10% mortality, 31% vs 17% pneumonia). Ventilator days and hospital/ICU length of stay was significantly longer, too. Mortality increased by 19% and pneumonia increased by 27% for each additional rib fracture in the elderly.

Here are some practical tips for management of rib fractures in the elderly:

  • Admit any older patient with even a single rib fracture for pain management and pulmonary toilet
  • Treat their pain well, but watch the narcotics! Consider an epidural if indicated, but monitor carefully.
  • Keep your patient out of bed as much as possible. Chairs are good, walking is better.
  • Encourage coughing and other pulmonary toilet techniques
  • Do not discharge until they pass the “eyeball” test. This means that they have to look well enough to go home and participate in their usual activities. They should be walking around at their usual speed and agility. It does no good to discharge and lay in bed or on the couch. They’ll be back dying of pneumonia before you know it.
  • A general rule of thumb: Length of stay is generally n+1 days, where n is the number of rib fractures (isolated injury). Be wary of trying to send someone home sooner than this.

Related posts:

Reference: Rib fractures in the elderly. J Trauma 48(6):1040-1046, 2000.

Thanks to Scott Weingart, author of the EMCrit Blog (www.emcrit.org) for suggesting this topic!

Thoughts On: Geriatric Trauma

I’ve had several requests for a piece on geriatric trauma. We know that elderly patients (officially age > 55) have worse outcomes for the same degree of injury. And as they get older, mortality rises rapidly. Here are some practical tips for trauma professionals. 

  • For EMS: As I mentioned yesterday, heed the CDC trauma triage guidelines. Older patients have better outcomes at trauma centers, so take advantage of it.
  • In the ED: Ask immediately about anticoagulation. This can cause life threatening situations, especially in the face of intracranial hemorrhage. If your patient is taking anything that interferes with clotting, treat them like a STEMI or stroke patient. Time is of the essence. Draw coags and get rapid access to the CT scanner. Refer to the guidelines I previously published on reversing the usual culprits.
  • Most elderly patients with any degree of head trauma need a head CT. They can hide bleeding well, until it’s too late to save them.
  • Once admitted, treat them very carefully. Even minor errors (too much fluid, unneeded IV contrast) can cause significant complications.
  • Use as little narcotic as possible. Acetominophen and ibuprofen work great. Lidocaine patches may be helpful in may cases. Steer away from narcotics and muscle relaxants as much as possible to avoid altering mental status.
  • Watch sleep patterns. Sleeping meds are bad, but reducing interruptions in the middle of the night  is good (do they really need vital signs taken at 2AM?).
  • Look at the patient’s baseline status. Are they a spry 90 year old, or a demented 70 year old who falls all the time? Have realistic expectations and communicate them with the family if major procedures or intubation are considered. Sure, we have the technology to fix many things, but at what cost to the patient? The family needs to understand the real likelihood of ICU, tracheostomy, and prolonged or permanent debilitation. Don’t make them as miserable as you can make the patient.

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