Importance: Recognizing patients in whom endotracheal intubation is likely to be difficult can help alert physicians to the need for assistance from a clinician with airway training and having advanced airway management equipment available.
Objective: To identify risk factors and physical findings that predict difficult intubation.
Data sources: The databases of MEDLINE and EMBASE were searched from 1946 to June 2018 and from 1947 to June 2018, respectively, and the reference lists from the retrieved articles and previous reviews were searched for additional studies.
Study selection: Sixty-two studies with high (level 1-3) methodological quality that evaluated the accuracy of clinical findings for identifying difficult intubation were reviewed.
Data extraction and synthesis: Two authors independently abstracted data. Bivariate random-effects meta-analyses were used to calculate summary positive likelihood ratios across studies or univariate random-effects models when bivariate models failed to converge.
Results: Among the 62 high-quality studies involving 33 559 patients, 10% (95% CI, 8.2%-12%) of patients were difficult to intubate. The physical examination findings that best predicted a difficult intubation included a grade of class 3 on the upper lip bite test (lower incisors cannot extend to reach the upper lip; positive likelihood ratio, 14 [95% CI, 8.9-22]; specificity, 0.96 [95% CI, 0.93-0.97]), shorter hyomental distance (range of <3-5.5 cm; positive likelihood ratio, 6.4 [95% CI, 4.1-10]; specificity, 0.97 [95% CI, 0.94-0.98]), retrognathia (mandible measuring <9 cm from the angle of the jaw to the tip of the chin or subjectively short; positive likelihood ratio, 6.0 [95% CI, 3.1-11]; specificity, 0.98 [95% CI, 0.90-1.0]), and a combination of physical findings based on the Wilson score (positive likelihood ratio, 9.1 [95% CI, 5.1-16]; specificity, 0.95 [95% CI, 0.90-0.98]). The widely used modified Mallampati score (≥3) had a positive likelihood ratio of 4.1 (95% CI, 3.0-5.6; specificity, 0.87 [95% CI, 0.81-0.91]).
Conclusions and relevance: Although several simple clinical findings are useful for predicting a higher likelihood of difficult endotracheal intubation, no clinical finding reliably excludes a difficult intubation. An abnormal upper lip bite test, which is easily assessed by clinicians, raises the probability of difficult intubation from 10% to greater than 60% for the average-risk patient.