Prehospital Decompression of Pneumothorax: A Systematic Review of Recent Evidence

Prehosp Disaster Med. 2021 Aug;36(4):450-459. doi: 10.1017/S1049023X21000509. Epub 2021 May 25.


Introduction: Pneumothorax remains an important cause of preventable trauma death. The aim of this systematic review is to synthesize the recent evidence on the efficacy, patient outcomes, and adverse events of different chest decompression approaches relevant to the out-of-hospital setting.

Methods: A comprehensive literature search was performed using five databases (from January 1, 2014 through June 15, 2020). To be considered eligible, studies required to report original data on decompression of suspected or proven traumatic pneumothorax and be considered relevant to the prehospital context. They also required to be conducted mostly on an adult population (expected more than ≥80% of the population ≥16 years old) of patients. Needle chest decompression (NCD), finger thoracostomy (FT), and tube thoracostomy were considered. No meta-analysis was performed. Level of evidence was assigned using the Harbour and Miller system.

Results: A total of 1,420 citations were obtained by the search strategy, of which 20 studies were included. Overall, the level of evidence was low. Eleven studies reported on the efficacy and patient outcomes following chest decompression. The most studied technique was NCD (n = 7), followed by FT (n = 5). Definitions of a successful chest decompression were heterogeneous. Subjective improvement following NCD ranged between 18% and 86% (n = 6). Successful FT was reported for between 9.7% and 32.0% of interventions following a traumatic cardiac arrest. Adverse events were infrequently reported. Nine studies presented only on anatomical measures with predicted failure and success. The mean anterior chest wall thickness (CWT) was larger than the lateral CWT in all studies except one. The predicted success rate of NCD ranged between 90% and 100% when using needle >7cm (n = 7) both for the lateral and anterior approaches. The reported risk of iatrogenic injuries was higher for the lateral approach, mostly on the left side because of the proximity with the heart.

Conclusions: Based on observational studies with a low level of evidence, prehospital NCD should be performed using a needle >7cm length with either a lateral or anterior approach. While FT is an interesting diagnostic and therapeutic approach, evidence on the success rates and complications is limited. High-quality studies are required to determine the optimal chest decompression approach applicable in the out-of-hospital setting.

Keywords: decompression; pneumothorax; prehospital; thoracic injuries; thoracostomy.

Publication types

  • Systematic Review

MeSH terms

  • Adolescent
  • Adult
  • Decompression, Surgical
  • Emergency Medical Services*
  • Humans
  • Pneumothorax* / etiology
  • Pneumothorax* / surgery
  • Thoracostomy