Defining the limits of resuscitative emergency department thoracotomy: a contemporary Western Trauma Association perspective

J Trauma. 2011 Feb;70(2):334-9. doi: 10.1097/TA.0b013e3182077c35.


Background: Since the promulgation of emergency department (ED) thoracotomy>40 years ago, there has been an ongoing search to define when this heroic resuscitative effort is futile. In this era of health care reform, generation of accurate data is imperative for developing patient care guidelines. The purpose of this prospective multicenter study was to identify injury patterns and physiologic profiles at ED arrival that are compatible with survival.

Methods: Eighteen institutions representing the Western Trauma Association commenced enrollment in January 2003; data were collected prospectively.

Results: During the ensuing 6 years, 56 patients survived to hospital discharge. Mean age was 31.3 years (15-64 years), and 93% were male. As expected, survival was predominant in those with thoracic injuries (77%), followed by abdomen (9%), extremity (7%), neck (4%), and head (4%). The most common injury was a ventricular stab wound (30%), followed by a gunshot wound to the lung (16%); 9% of survivors sustained blunt trauma, 34% underwent prehospital cardiopulmonary resuscitation (CPR), and the presenting base deficit was >25 mequiv/L in 18%. Relevant to futile care, there were survivors of blunt torso injuries with CPR up to 9 minutes and penetrating torso wounds up to 15 minutes. Asystole was documented at ED arrival in seven patients (12%); all these patients had pericardial tamponade and three (43%) had good functional neurologic recovery at hospital discharge.

Conclusion: Resuscitative thoracotomy in the ED can be considered futile care when (a) prehospital CPR exceeds 10 minutes after blunt trauma without a response, (b) prehospital CPR exceeds 15 minutes after penetrating trauma without a response, and (c) asystole is the presenting rhythm and there is no pericardial tamponade.

Publication types

  • Multicenter Study

MeSH terms

  • Abdominal Injuries / mortality
  • Abdominal Injuries / surgery
  • Adolescent
  • Adult
  • Emergency Service, Hospital / statistics & numerical data
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Male
  • Middle Aged
  • Prospective Studies
  • Resuscitation / methods*
  • Resuscitation / mortality
  • Resuscitation / statistics & numerical data
  • Survival Analysis
  • Thoracic Injuries / mortality
  • Thoracic Injuries / surgery
  • Thoracotomy / mortality
  • Thoracotomy / statistics & numerical data*
  • Treatment Outcome
  • United States
  • Wounds and Injuries / mortality
  • Wounds and Injuries / surgery*
  • Wounds, Gunshot / mortality
  • Wounds, Gunshot / surgery
  • Wounds, Stab / mortality
  • Wounds, Stab / surgery
  • Young Adult