An evidence-based approach to patient selection for emergency department thoracotomy: A practice management guideline from the Eastern Association for the Surgery of Trauma

J Trauma Acute Care Surg. 2015 Jul;79(1):159-73. doi: 10.1097/TA.0000000000000648.


Background: Within the GRADE (Grading of Recommendations Assessment, Development and Evaluation) framework, we performed a systematic review and developed evidence-based recommendations to answer the following PICO (Population, Intervention, Comparator, Outcomes) question: should patients who present pulseless after critical injuries (with and without signs of life after penetrating thoracic, extrathoracic, or blunt injuries) undergo emergency department thoracotomy (EDT) (vs. resuscitation without EDT) to improve survival and neurologically intact survival?

Methods: All patients who underwent EDT were included while those involving either prehospital resuscitative thoracotomy or operating room thoracotomy were excluded. Quantitative synthesis via meta-analysis was not possible because no comparison or control group (i.e., survival or neurologically intact survival data for similar patients who did not undergo EDT) was available for the PICO questions of interest.

Results: The 72 included studies provided 10,238 patients who underwent EDT. Patients presenting pulseless after penetrating thoracic injury had the most favorable EDT outcomes both with (survival, 182 [21.3%] of 853; neurologically intact survival, 53 [11.7%] of 454) and without (survival, 76 [8.3%] of 920; neurologically intact survival, 25 [3.9%] of 641) signs of life. In patients presenting pulseless after penetrating extrathoracic injury, EDT outcomes were more favorable with signs of life (survival, 25 [15.6%] of 160; neurologically intact survival, 14 [16.5%] of 85) than without (survival, 4 [2.9%] of 139; neurologically intact survival, 3 [5.0%] of 60). Outcomes after EDT in pulseless blunt injury patients were limited with signs of life (survival, 21 [4.6%] of 454; neurologically intact survival, 7 [2.4%] of 298) and dismal without signs of life (survival, 7 [0.7%] of 995; neurologically intact survival, 1 [0.1%] of 825).

Conclusion: We strongly recommend that patients who present pulseless with signs of life after penetrating thoracic injury undergo EDT. We conditionally recommend EDT for patients who present pulseless and have absent signs of life after penetrating thoracic injury, present or absent signs of life after penetrating extrathoracic injury, or present signs of life after blunt injury. Lastly, we conditionally recommend against EDT for pulseless patients without signs of life after blunt injury.

Level of evidence: Systematic review/guideline, level III.

MeSH terms

  • Emergency Service, Hospital / statistics & numerical data
  • Guidelines as Topic
  • Heart Arrest / therapy
  • Humans
  • Patient Selection*
  • Practice Management
  • Survival Analysis
  • Thoracic Injuries / mortality
  • Thoracic Injuries / surgery*
  • Thoracotomy* / statistics & numerical data
  • Treatment Outcome
  • Unnecessary Procedures / statistics & numerical data
  • Wounds, Nonpenetrating / mortality
  • Wounds, Nonpenetrating / surgery*
  • Wounds, Penetrating / mortality
  • Wounds, Penetrating / surgery*