More on needle thoracostomy for tension pneumothorax

Thanks to Dr. Matthew Oliver for highlighting these articles to me.

The standard teaching of placing a handy iv catheter in the 2nd intercostal space, midclavicular line for tension pneumothorax has been challenged by previous studies suggesting about a third of adults have a chest wall that is too thick for a standard 4.5 to 5 cm needle.

Some have therefore suggested that a lateral approach may be more appropriate.

Three studies this month provide more, although not entirely consistent, information.

An ultrasound study differed from previous CT studies by suggesting that most patients will have chest wall thickness (CWT) less than 4.5 cm, and found that the CW was thicker in the lateral area (4th intercostal space, midaxillary line)1.

In a cadaveric model, needle thoracostomy was successfully placed (confirmed by thoracotomy) in all attempts at the fifth intercostal space at the midaxillary line but in only just over half of insertions at the traditional second intercostal position2.

In a further study of trauma CT scans, measured CWT suggests that the lateral approach is less likely to be successful than the anterior approach, and the anterior approach may fail in many patients as well3.

The take home message for us must therefore remain that needle thoracostomy for tension pneumothorax might not be successful with a standard iv catheter, regardless of which approach is used. If tension pneumothorax is a possibility in the deteriorating patient and needle decompression has been unsuccessful, an alternative means of decompression (or ruling out pneumothorax) must be employed.

1. Ultrasound determination of chest wall thickness: implications for needle thoracostomy
Am J Emerg Med. 2011 Nov;29(9):1173-7

Objective: Computed tomography measurements of chest wall thickness (CWT) suggest that standard- length angiocatheters (4.5 cm) may fail to decompress tension pneumothoraces. We used an alternative modality, ultrasound, to measure CWT. We correlated CWT with body mass index (BMI) and used national data to estimate the percentage of patients with CWT greater than 4.5 cm.

Methods: This was an observational, cross-sectional study of a convenience sample. We recorded standing height, weight, and sex. We measured CWT with ultrasound at the second intercostal space, midclavicular line and at the fourth intercostal space, midaxillary line on supine subjects. We correlated BMI (weight [in kilograms]/height2 [in square meters]) with CWT using linear regression. 95% Confidence intervals (CIs) assessed statistical significance. National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey results for 2007-2008 were combined to estimate national BMI adult measurements.

Results: Of 51 subjects, 33 (65%) were male and 18 (35%) were female. Mean anterior CWT (male, 2.1 cm; CI, 1.9-2.3; female, 2.3 cm; CI, 1.7-2.7), lateral CWT (male, 2.4 cm; CI, 2.1-2.6; female, 2.5 cm; CI 2.0-2.9), and BMI (male, 27.7; CI, 26.1-29.3; female, 30.0; CI, 25.8-34.2) did not differ by sex. Lateral CWT was greater than anterior CWT (0.2 cm; CI, 0.1-0.4; P < .01). Only one subject with a BMI of 48.2 had a CWT that exceeded 4.5 cm. Using national BMI estimates, less than 1% of the US population would be expected to have CWT greater than 4.5 cm.

Conclusions: Ultrasound measurements suggest that most patients will have CWT less than 4.5 cm and that CWT may not be the source of the high failure rate of needle decompression in tension pneumothorax.

2. Anterior versus lateral needle decompression of tension pneumothorax: comparison by computed tomography chest wall measurement.
Acad Emerg Med. 2011 Oct;18(10):1022-6

Objectives:  Recent research describes failed needle decompression in the anterior position. It has been hypothesized that a lateral approach may be more successful. The aim of this study was to identify the optimal site for needle decompression.

Methods:  A retrospective study was conducted of emergency department (ED) patients who underwent computed tomography (CT) of the chest as part of their evaluation for blunt trauma. A convenience sample of 159 patients was formed by reviewing consecutive scans of eligible patients. Six measurements from the skin surface to the pleural surface were made for each patient: anterior second intercostal space, lateral fourth intercostal space, and lateral fifth intercostal space on the left and right sides.

Results:  The distance from skin to pleura at the anterior second intercostal space averaged 46.3 mm on the right and 45.2 mm on the left. The distance at the midaxillary line in the fourth intercostal space was 63.7 mm on the right and 62.1 mm on the left. In the fifth intercostal space the distance was 53.8 mm on the right and 52.9 mm on the left. The distance of the anterior approach was statistically less when compared to both intercostal spaces (p <  0.01).

Conclusions:  With commonly available angiocatheters, the lateral approach is less likely to be successful than the anterior approach. The anterior approach may fail in many patients as well. Longer angiocatheters may increase the chances of decompression, but would also carry a higher risk of damage to surrounding vital structures.

3. Optimal Positioning for Emergent Needle Thoracostomy: A Cadaver-Based Study
J Trauma. 2011 Nov;71(5):1099-1103/a>

Background:  Needle thoracostomy is an emergent procedure designed to relieve tension pneumothorax. High failure rates because of the needle not penetrating into the thoracic cavity have been reported. Advanced Trauma Life Support guidelines recommend placement in the second intercostal space, midclavicular line using a 5-cm needle. The purpose of this study was to evaluate placement in the fifth intercostal space, midaxillary line, where tube thoracostomy is routinely performed. We hypothesized that this would result in a higher successful placement rate.

Methods:  Twenty randomly selected unpreserved adult cadavers were evaluated. A standard 14-gauge 5-cm needle was placed in both the fifth intercostal space at the midaxillary line and the traditional second intercostal space at the midclavicular line in both the right and left chest walls. The needles were secured and thoracotomy was then performed to assess penetration into the pleural cavity. The right and left sides were analyzed separately acting as their own controls for a total of 80 needles inserted into 20 cadavers. The thickness of the chest wall at the site of penetration was then measured for each entry position.

Results:  A total of 14 male and 6 female cadavers were studied. Overall, 100% (40 of 40) of needles placed in the fifth intercostal space and 57.5% (23 of 40) of the needles placed in the second intercostal space entered the chest cavity (p < 0.001); right chest: 100% versus 60.0% (p = 0.003) and left chest: 100% versus 55.0% (p = 0.001). Overall, the thickness of the chest wall was 3.5 cm ± 0.9 cm at the fifth intercostal space and 4.5 cm ± 1.1 cm at the second intercostal space (p < 0.001). Both right and left chest wall thicknesses were similar (right, 3.6 cm ± 1.0 cm vs. 4.5 cm ± 1.1 cm, p = 0.007; left, 3.5 ± 0.9 cm vs. 4.4 cm ± 1.1 cm, p = 0.008).

Conclusions:In a cadaveric model, needle thoracostomy was successfully placed in 100% of attempts at the fifth intercostal space but in only 58% at the traditional second intercostal position. On average, the chest wall was 1 cm thinner at this position and may improve successful needle placement. Live patient validation of these results is warranted.

Update October 2012: See this post about a further CT-scan based study favouring the 5th ICS compared with the 2nd

4 thoughts on “More on needle thoracostomy for tension pneumothorax”

  1. Dunno about you mob, but my experience is that the majority of tensions I’ve seen have been under positive-pressure ventilation…

    …so I tend to do a finger thoracostomy instead, and remove any doubt about whether me needle has reached the pleural space.

  2. Interesting studies. Given current obesity rates it’s not surprising the standard needles are having trouble reaching the pleural space, and muscular young men can be difficult too. It’s definitely not a “one size fits all” procedure. I generally teach my Registrars to get the longest needle they can find: either an 8-10cm14G IV, the central line or rapid infuser kits (which have longer 16G’s) or pleurocentesis needle, and lastly as I’ve always been taught – the goal is decompression, the method is secondary. Small needle, big needle, scalpel (+/- forceps +/- finger) can all be used. Nice to know about the issues related to site/approach.

  3. Been doing the finger thoracostomy thing for a while now – I must say it removes any uncertainty about actually entering the pleural space and that has made it my go to technique

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