Background: Airway injury during general anesthesia is a significant source of morbidity for patients and a source of liability for anesthesiologists. To identify recurrent patterns of injury, the authors analyzed claims for airway injury in the American Society of Anesthesiologists (ASA) Closed Claims Project database.
Methods: The ASA Closed Claims database is a standardized collection of case summaries derived from professional liability insurance companies closed claims files. All claims for airway injury were reviewed in depth and were compared to other claims during general anesthesia.
Results: Approximately 6% (266) of 4,460 claims in the database were for airway injury. The most frequent sites of injury were the larynx (33%), pharynx (19%), and esophagus (18%). Injuries to the esophagus and trachea were more frequently associated with difficult intubation. Injuries to temporomandibular joint and the larynx were more frequently associated with nondifficult intubation. Injuries to the esophagus were more severe and resulted in a higher payment to the plaintiff than claims for other sites of airway injury. Difficult intubation (odds ratio = 4.53, 95% confidence interval [CI] = 2.36, 8.71), age older than 60 yr (odds ratio = 2.97, 95% CI = 1.51, 5.87), and female gender (odds ratio = 2.43, 95% CI = 1.09, 5.42) were associated with claims for pharyngoesophageal perforation. Early signs of perforation, e.g., pneumothorax and subcutaneous emphysema, were present in only 51% of perforation claims, whereas late sequelae, e.g., retropharyngeal abscess and mediastinitis, occurred in 65%.
Conclusion: Patients in whom tracheal intubation has been difficult should be observed for and told to watch for the development of symptoms and signs of retropharyngeal abscess, mediastinitis, or both.