Physician-performed ultrasound can accurately screen for a vulnerable intercostal artery prior to chest drainage procedures

Respirology. 2013 Aug;18(6):942-7. doi: 10.1111/resp.12088.


Background and objective: Laceration of the intercostal artery during pleural procedures is a rare but serious complication. This study evaluates the utility of thoracic ultrasound (US) to screen for a vulnerable vessel compared with the gold standard computed tomography (CT).

Methods: Before undergoing contrast-enhanced CT chest, thoracic US was performed on 50 patients with a high-end and portable machine, and an attempt made to visualize the vessel at three positions across the back to the axilla. These positions were labelled with radio-opaque fiducial markers. On both US and CT images, the location of the vessel at each position, relative to the overlying rib, was calculated and compared.

Results: The vessel was unshielded by a rib according to CT in 114 of the 133 positions. The sensitivity, specificity and negative predictive value of portable US to image the vessel, when it was within the intercostal space on CT, was 0.86, 0.30 and 0.27 respectively. The performance of a high-end machine was not significantly different. The median time required for a pulmonologist to locate the vessel was 42 s and 18 s for the portable and high-end US respectively.

Conclusions: US can be used to screen for a vulnerable vessel prior to pleural procedures, in a time amenable to use in clinical practice. Further, it is achievable by a pulmonologist using a portable US machine. If thoracentesis or chest tube insertion is being performed on a patient at increased risk of bleeding, screening for a vulnerable vessel with US prior to beginning the procedure is recommended.

Keywords: Doppler ultrasonography; intercostal artery; intercostal catheter; pleural effusion; thoracentesis.

Publication types

  • Comparative Study

MeSH terms

  • Adult
  • Aged
  • Aged, 80 and over
  • Angiography
  • Arteries / diagnostic imaging*
  • Arteries / injuries
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Intercostal Muscles / blood supply*
  • Lung Diseases / complications
  • Lung Neoplasms / complications
  • Male
  • Middle Aged
  • Physicians*
  • Pleural Effusion / etiology
  • Pleural Effusion / therapy*
  • Preoperative Care
  • Prospective Studies
  • Sensitivity and Specificity
  • Thoracostomy / adverse effects
  • Thoracostomy / methods*
  • Tomography, X-Ray Computed
  • Ultrasonography / methods*