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Emergency Medicine and Critical Care

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Tube Thoracostomy



Emergency chest tube insertion, or tube thoracostomy, is performed as a definitive treatment for releasing the abnormally increased pressure inside the thoracic cavity. It is a procedure during which a hollow tube is inserted into the thoracic cavity for drainage of accumulated fluid or air. Irrespective of the cause, the drainage relieves lung compression and enables lung re-expansion.

This video will briefly outline the indications and then explain how to conduct the tube thoracostomy procedure in detail.

The indications for emergency chest tube insertion include conditions like tension pneumothorax...traumatic hemothorax...large volume pleural effusion...and empyema.

In case of a pneumothorax, air accumulation in the pleural cavity separates pleural layers, which prevents lung expansion during the respiration. Abnormal fluid accumulation, such as in case of hemothorax, pleural effusion or empyema, causes separation of the visceral pleura that adheres to lung tissue from the parietal pleura that forms the lining of the chest cavity. This uncoupling of the pleural layers leads to disconnection of chest wall movement from the lung movement causing respiratory distress. In addition, an excessive pressure from overwhelming amounts of air or fluid in the pleura may push the mediastinum away from the central chest, causing reduced cardiac filling and therefore decreased cardiac output.

Now that we've discussed the indications, let's review the prepping steps to be performed before performing tube thoracostomy.

First, obtain a chest tube kit, which should include: antiseptic solution, sterile drapes, a local anesthetic, a 20 milliliter syringe, needles, scalpel with a number 10 blade, Kelly clamps, needle holder, silk suture, forceps, straight scissors, large curved scissors, a drainage system with water seal and sterile tubing, petroleum gauze, cloth gauze squares, adhesive tape and chest tubes.

Chest tubes are composed of clear plastic. They typically have a radiopaque strip running along their sides and fenestrations at the tip. The tube sizes vary from 12 to 42 French. The smaller sizes are typically reserved for pediatric patients, where as 36 French or larger tubes are used in hemothorax treatment and empyema drainage.

Begin by administering supplemental oxygen to the patient via a nasal cannula or a non-rebreather mask. Ensure the patient is connected to a cardiac monitoring device and a pulse oximetry device. Next, move the patient into a semi-recumbent position and elevate the head of the bed to a 30-60 degree angle. Conducting the procedure in this position can reduce the risk of injury to the diaphragm muscle and sub-diaphragmatic organs.

Now place the patient's ipsilateral arm over their head and stabilize the arm in this position with tape or a strap attached to the stretcher. Next, administer parenteral analgesics such as morphine prior the procedure. Prepare the sterile field by liberally applying antiseptic solution to the entire affected chest wall. Following that, cover the field with sterile drapes so only the insertion site is exposed.

At this point, put on the sterile gown, don sterile gloves and lay equipment or medications on a sterile tray. It can be helpful to have several size chest tubes ready.

Now estimate the size of tube needed to reach the patient's pleural space. To do so, place the tip of the tube gently against the patient's clavicle and direct it towards the insertion site on the lateral chest wall. Be sure the tube is long enough to reach the apex of the patient's lung. Clamp the tube to mark the estimated length and ensure that the most distal drainage fenestration will be located within the pleural space once the tube is inserted. Next, palpate to identify the preferred location for chest tube placement, which is either the fourth or fifth intercostal space located between the anterior axillary and mid-axillary line. Note that the fifth intercostal space is usually found at nipple level. You can mark the insertion site with a sterile surgical marker.

Now you're ready to start the chest tube placement procedure. Administer local anesthetic by infiltrating the skin over the superior aspect of the 5th or 6th rib. Then slowly inject through the subcutaneous tissue, muscle, rib periosteum and the parietal pleura along the projected pathway of tube passage. Intermittently aspirate the syringe while performing the injection. When air is withdrawn upon aspiration, it indicates that the parietal pleura has been reached. Inject liberally to infiltrate the pleural lining and then withdraw the syringe.

Following anesthesia administration, make a 3 to 5 centimeter transverse incision above and parallel to the 5th or 6th rib. Be sure the incision is made through the patient's skin and subcutaneous tissue and is large enough to fit the tube, fitting clamps and an index finger. An incision made in this manner protects against damage to neurovascular bundles, which lie at the inferior aspect of each rib. Next, insert the Kelly clamp into the incision and perform blunt dissection of the subcutaneous tissues down to the intercostal muscles until a firm resistance is detected. Firm resistance indicates the parietal pleura has been reached. Blunt dissection may be aided by use an index finger.

Next, close the ends of the Kelly clamp, hold it with the index finger positioned near the clamp tip and push it through the parietal pleura into the pleural space. A popping sensation will be felt and a rush of air or fluid will be audible when the pleural space is reached. Following that, open and spread the clamp to produce an opening. The opening must be large enough to accommodate both a finger and a chest tube, but not excessively large -- as that might lead to an air leak. Sweep the space with the gloved index finger to ensure there are no blockages. Leave the finger in the opening while withdrawing the clamp to maintain the incision's integrity.

Now insert the tube beside the finger into the pleural space. The fingertip can guide the tube into the appropriate direction posteriorly, medially, and superiorly until the last fenestration of the tube is in the thorax. All holes should be within the pleural space and the tube should be able to rotate freely. Premature resistance to passage of the tube could indicate that the tube is not in the pleura and may be passing in subcutaneous tissue or abutting the mediastinum. Observe the tube for condensation and listen for the movement of air. Visible tube condensation and audible airflow are indications the tube is in the correct position.

Attach the tube to the water seal or suction system. Note the flow of fluid, and its rate. Bubbling within the water seal chamber is usually immediately apparent, but you may ask the patient to cough and observe for bubbles in the water seal chamber to ensure system patency.

Next, secure the tube by using a "stay" suture. Start with a simple interrupted suture near the site of the chest tube and leave both ends of the suture long. Then tie the free ends around the tube and secure it in place. Lastly, apply occlusive petroleum gauze dressing over the chest tube site using a Y cut to fit the tube. This will prevent air leaks. And tape the dressing to the skin and to the tube to avoid dislodgment. To confirm tube placement, order a chest X-ray.

"Emergent tube thoracostomy is performed in patients in extremis or when the size of the pneumothorax or fluid in the chest cavity, worsening symptoms and the patient's vital signs indicate a possibility for the rapid deterioration in the patient's condition."

"Once a chest tube has been inserted into a patient, the patient will require constant monitoring. The patient's vital signs must be assessed along with an improvement in respiratory effort and a resolution of tachypnea and hypoxia. A decline or plateau in the patient's condition may necessitate the placement of a second chest tube or surgical intervention."

"The most common complications of tube placement include: local infection at the insertion site, subcutaneous emphysema due to air leaking from excessive openings and injuries to underlying solid organs such as the lung and spleen. Furthermore, tubes may dislodge or become blocked by clotted fluid. Tubes may also be placed in the incorrect position, either subcutaneously or intra-abdominally, especially in obese patients where anatomical positioning may be misleading."

You have just watched a JoVE video demonstrating the indications and procedure for tube thoracostomy. As always, thanks for watching!

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