Blunt trauma and operative care in microgravity: a review of microgravity physiology and surgical investigations with implications for critical care and operative treatment in space

J Am Coll Surg. 1997 May;184(5):441-53.


Background: The assembly of the International Space Station in a low earth orbit will soon become a reality. The National Aeronautics and Space Administration envisions inhabited lunar bases and staffed missions to Mars in the future. Increasing numbers of astronauts, construction of high-mass structures, increased extra-vehicular activity, and prolonged if not prohibitive medical evacuation times to earth underscore the need to address requirements for trauma care in nonterrestrial environments.

Study design: A search was carried out to review the relevant literature in the MEDLINE and SPACELINE databases. All related Technical, Corporate, and Flight Test Reports in the KRUG Life Sciences corporate library were also reviewed. Bibliographies of all articles were then reviewed from these papers to identify additional pertinent literature. Senior Russian investigators reviewed the Russian literature and translated Russian publications when appropriate. Personal communication and discussion with active microgravity investigators and ongoing microgravity research supplemented published reports.

Results: A large volume of data exist to document the multiple detrimental physiologic effects of microgravity exposure on human physiology. Organs systems such as cardiovascular, neurohumoral, immune, hematopoetic, and musculoskeletal systems may be particularly affected. These physiologic changes suggest an impaired ability to withstand major systemic trauma. Observational data also suggest adverse changes in numerous aspects of response to wounding and injury, and in areas such as the behavior of hemorrhage, microbiologic flora, and wound healing. In addition to an increased volume of ongoing and anticipated basic science research in microgravity physiology, preliminary studies of clinical diagnosis and therapy have been carried out in microgravity and microgravity laboratories. The feasibility of a wide range of ancillary critical care techniques has been verified in the parabolic flight model of microgravity. Although Russian investigators first performed laparotomies on rabbits in parabolic flight in 1967, only recently have American investigators demonstrated the reproducible feasibility of open and endoscopic surgical procedures under general anesthetic in animal models in a microgravity environment.

Conclusions: With appropriate instrumentation and personnel, the majority of resuscitative and surgical interventions required to stabilize a severely injured astronaut are feasible in a microgravity environment. Onboard limitations in mass, volume, and power that are ever present in any spacecraft design will limit the realistic capabilities of the medical system. Standard proved and tested trauma and operative management protocols will constitute the basis for extra-terrestrial care. Surgeons should familiarize themselves with the microgravity environment and remain active in planning trauma care for the continued exploration of space.

Publication types

  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Aerospace Medicine*
  • Anesthesia
  • Animals
  • Critical Care*
  • Humans
  • Resuscitation
  • Spacecraft*
  • Weightlessness*
  • Wound Healing / physiology
  • Wounds, Nonpenetrating / physiopathology
  • Wounds, Nonpenetrating / surgery*