Objectives: To determine the effect of needle thoracostomy (NT) in the prehospital setting, its frequency of use, and its complication rate.
Methods: This was a prospective case series from January 1, 1995, to December 31, 1996. Inclusion criteria were all patients who met trauma center criteria, were transported by paramedics to Los Angeles County/University of Southern California Medical Center (a large, urban, level I trauma center), and had placement of a prehospital NT.
Results: Out of 6,241 major trauma patients transported by paramedics over the study period, 108 (1.7%) underwent 114 NTs. Sixty-four patients (59%) sustained gunshot wounds, 32 (30%) sustained stab wounds, eight (7%) were involved in motor vehicle accidents, and the remainder had other types of blunt trauma. The mean injury severity score (ISS) was 22.3, and the overall mortality rate was 28%. Of the patients who received NTs, five (5%) showed objective improvement in field vital signs and seven (7%) had subjective improvement of their dyspnea. Two NTs were found to have not penetrated into the thorax with the catheter tip in the soft tissue. Two patients (2%) received NTs despite the absence of any chest injuries found upon operative intervention, resulting in two iatrogenic pneumothoraxes. No other complications, including vascular injury or infection, were found in any of the patients.
Conclusion: Prehospital NT is a procedure infrequently performed by paramedics, even in a busy urban area. While there is a risk of the procedure's being done without proper indication, NT may improve outcomes in a small subset of chest-injured patients.