I love to hate dogma. And there’s probably nothing in surgery more sacred and more ingrained than how to take care of a wound. Everybody knows that you have to keep surgical or traumatic wounds dry, and that once you can get them wet, showers are good at baths are bad. Right?
And for something as common as wound management, there must be some kind of research, right? Not so! I did quite a bit of digging through the literature since 1966 and managed to find only five papers. Here are the highlights:
A prospective study of 100 patients were randomized to shower or bathe postoperatively. Of note, the wounds were sprayed with a clear plastic dressing before getting in the water. The was no difference in infection rates.
Another prospective study of 100 patients with stapled incisions after spine surgery were allowed to bathe after 2 to 5 days. Compared to historical controls, there were no differences in infection rates even though the study patients had more complex operations than controls.
A prospective randomized study of 121 patients after hernia surgery found no difference in infection between shower and dry groups
A large randomized study of 817 patients similarly showed no difference between shower and dry groups
Another randomized trial of 170 patients showed no difference in infections between shower after 24 hours and control groups
Get the picture? And interestingly, the few wound infections documented in any of the studies tended to occur in the dry groups, although this was not statistically significant.
Bottom line: In general, it is not harmful to get a wound wet after 24 hours. We don’t know exactly why because of the paucity of the literature, but think about it. The water that we shower or bathe in is the same water that we drink. It’s very close to sterile. When we do shower or bathe, the bacteria that come in contact with the wound are our normal skin flora, which are already in and on the wound. Plus, most incisions that have been closed are water-tight within about 24 hours. It’s more likely that using soap and water is good for you because it washes away tons of bacteria, including the pathogens!
Prospective randomised trial of the early postoperative bathing. BMJ 19 in June 1976: 1506-1507, 1976.
Wound care after posterior spinal surgery. Does early grading affect the rate of wound complications? Spine (Phila PA 1976) 21(18):2160-2162, 1996.
Does a shower with postoperative wound healing at risk? Chirurg 68(7): 715-717, 1997.
Modification of postoperative wound healing by showering. Chirurg 71(2):234-236, 2000.
Postoperative wound healing in wound-water contact. Zentralbl Chir 125(2):157-160, 2000.
At some point in their training, every trauma professional is taught that there is a certain period time during which a wound can be safely closed. The exact number varies, but is usually somewhere between 6 and 24 hours. After that, we are told, “bad things happen.”
Always question dogma, I say. Is this true, or is it another one of those “facts” that have been propagated through the ages? Two emergency medicine groups recently performed a meta-analysis to try to answer my question. As usual, they found that much of the published literature is not very good. Out of 418 papers in their original search, only 4 fully met their criteria (laceration repaired primarily, in the ED, with clear early vs delayed criteria.
With the exception of one study with a very limited focus, there was no correlation between wound age and infection or dehiscence after primary closure. None of the studies could reliably provide a specific time beyond which closure was destined to fail. And the use of antibiotics in some of the studies also confounded the results.
Bottom line: It is more likely that infection-prone wounds get infected, not old ones. Although leaving a wound open to heal by secondary intention usually avoids the problem, it’s a big patient dissatisfier, especially with large wounds. Since many patients don’t present to the ED until their wound is “old”, it may be reasonable to try primary closure in all but infection-prone wounds. (The meaning of that phrase is not exactly clear, but most of us know it when we see it.)
Reference: The impact of wound age on the infection rate of simple lacerations repaired in the emergency department. Injury 43(11):1793-1798, 2012.
I find that many trauma professionals are nervous about closing stab wounds. They seem to worry a lot about infections and lean toward leaving the wound open to heal by secondary intention. But is this warranted?
The answer is: probably not. Most knives used for assaults are clean, but not quite sterile. Yes, there are a few bacteria on the blade, but not very many. So if the usual wound management guidelines are followed, the patients generally do quite well.
The guidelines are:
No gross contamination. If the knife was used to cut raw chicken or to stir up manure, that’s a problem. Leave it open.
No devitalized tissue. Complex lacerations with dusky skin bridges may get infected. Debride or leave open.
Don’t let the wound get fully colonized with skin bacteria. There is no good literature on this, but more than 12 hours for most of the body and 24 hours for the face is a reasonable guideline.
If any of these guidelines have been violated, it’s probably best to leave the wound open. Otherwise the default should be to try to close it as soon and as cleanly as possible. This means irrigating with saline to decrease any bacterial counts. Either sutures or staples are acceptable.
The most important part of this process is patient education. They must be informed about what signs of a wound infection to look for so they can return earlier rather than later to have you deal with it.
I’ve generally written a post every month reviewing an article from the Journal of Trauma exactly 20 years earlier that illustrates the history of some of the things we do now. I’m reaching further back in the past today, looking 50 years ago to the July 1961 issue of the first volume of the Journal.
Most trauma hospitals do not see many gunshots. There are exceptions, of course, in more urban areas. Much of what we’ve learned about taking care of gunshot wounds is based on experiences gained from the military during wartime. In the 15 years after World War II, many hospitals were treating civilian gunshot wounds like their military counterparts.
A paper published in 1961 reported the current practice at a number of trauma hospitals across the US. Remember, there were no “trauma centers” at the time. These reports were from Bellevue in New York, St. Louis, Cook County in Chicago, Galveston, Columbus and others.
A total of 368 wounds were managed, and more than 300 were cared for without the wound debridement that had been the norm. The authors found that most did very well with cleansing and antibiotic treatment. They concluded that debridement was not necessary unless a vascular injury was also present. It was believed that the firearms found in civilian practice were universally low velocity weapons which did not inflict the degree of tissue damage of military weapons.
We generally follow this tenet to this day. Most handgun wounds do not need any special debridement. Rifle, shotgun and assault weapon injuries typically do, and is best carried out in an OR. Antibiotic use has decreased significantly, in many cases to a single dose of a drug that covers typical skin bacteria.
Reference: The indications for debridement of gun shot (bullet) wounds of the extremities in civilian practice. J Trauma 1(4):368-372, 1961.
There is considerable variability in the way that penetrating wounds are approached. Some are located over areas of lesser importance (distal extremities) or are so superficial that they obviously don’t fully penetrate the skin.
Unfortunately, some involve high-value structures (much of the neck and torso), or are too small to tell if they penetrate (ice pick injury). How should these injuries be approached?
Too often, someone just probes the wound and makes a pronouncement based on that assessment. Unfortunately, there are major problems with this technique:
The tract may be too small to appreciate with a finger or even a cotton-tip swab
The tract may be oriented in an unexpected direction, or the soft tissues may have moved after the penetration occurred. In this case, the examiner may not appreciate any significant depth to the wound.
Inserting an object may violate a structure that you wish it hadn’t (resulting in a hissing sound after probing a chest wound, or a column of blood after probing the neck)
A better way to approach these wounds is as follows:
Is the patient unstable? If so, you know the penetration caused the problem and the patient belongs in the OR.
Is there other evidence of deep injury, such as peritonitis with a penetrating abdominal wound? If so, the patient still needs to go to the OR.
Do a legitimate local wound exploration. This entails making the hole bigger with a knife, and using surgical instruments and your eyes to find the bottom of the tract. Obviously, there are some parts of the body where this cannot be done, such as the face, but they probably don’t need this kind of workup anyway.
As one of my mentors, John Weigelt, used to say, “Doctor, do you have an eye on the end of your finger?” In general, don’t use anything that doesn’t involve an eyeball in your local wound explorations!
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