Background: The aim of operative chest wall stabilization in patients with flail chest and respiratory insufficiency is to reduce ventilator time and avoid ventilator associated complications. The purpose of this retrospective study was to analyze the indications and outcomes of operative chest wall stabilization in defined groups of patients sustaining flail chest with and without pulmonary contusion.
Methods: The hospital records of 405 patients with multiple trauma (Injury Severity Score > 17) between 1988 and 1994 were reviewed. Forty-two patients sustained flail chest. Twenty of these underwent operative chest wall stabilization for the following indications: 1) flail chest with indication for thoracotomy due to intrathoracic injury (n = 6); 2) flail chest without pulmonary contusion (n = 9); 3) paradoxical movement of a chest wall segment in the weaning period from the respirator (n = 3); and 4) severe deformity of the chest wall (n = 2). For the purpose of analysis the patients were separated into groups: group 1: operative chest wall stabilization in flail chest without pulmonary contusion (n = 10); group 2: operative chest wall stabilization in flail chest with pulmonary contusion (n = 10); group 3: flail chest without pulmonary contusion and without chest wall stabilization (n = 18); group 4: flail chest with pulmonary contusion and without chest wall stabilization (n = 4). Data were coded for time of operation, duration of ventilatory support, and complications.
Results: There were no significant differences in age, severity of injury, and extent of injury between groups 1, 2, and 3 (p < 0.42). Group 4 was excluded for statistical analysis because of the small number of patients. Patients in group 1 required a shorter ventilatory support time compared to patients in group 3 (6.5+/-7.0 versus 26.7+/-29.0 days) and group 2 (p < 0.02). In group 2 (ventilator time 30.8+/-33.7 days) early extubation was only possible in patients being operated on for chest wall instability during weaning from the ventilator. One patient in group 1, three patients in group 2 and five patients in group 3 developed pneumonia with further disturbance of gas exchange. All patients in group 1 survived; deaths in group 2 were attributed to massive hemorrhage in two and septic multiorgan failure in one patient. Four patients in group 3 died of head injury, one of acute respiratory distress syndrome, one of severe hemorrhage, and one of multiple organ failure.
Conclusions: In patients with flail chest and respiratory insufficiency without pulmonary contusion, operative chest wall stabilization permits early extubation. Patients with pulmonary contusion do not benefit from chest wall stabilization. Secondary operative chest wall stabilization in these patients is indicated when progressive collapse of the chest wall is evident during weaning from the ventilator.