The unanticipated difficult airway with recommendations for management

Can J Anaesth. 1998 Aug;45(8):757-76. doi: 10.1007/BF03012147.


Purpose: To review the current literature and generate recommendations on the role of newer technology in the management of the unanticipated difficult airway.

Methods: A literature search using key words and filters of English language and English abstracted publications from 1990-96 contained in the Medline, Current Contents and Biological Abstracts databases was carried out. The literature was reviewed and condensed and a series of evidence-based recommendations were evolved.

Conclusions: The unanticipated difficult airway occurs with a low but consistent incidence in anaesthesia practice. Difficult direct laryngoscopy occurs in 1.5-8.5% of general anaesthetics and difficult intubation occurs with a similar incidence. Failed intubation occurs in 0.13-0.3% general anaesthetics. Current techniques for predicting difficulty with laryngoscopy and intubation are sensitive, non-specific and have a low positive predictive value. Assessment techniques which utilize multiple characteristics to derive a risk factor tend to be more accurate predictors. Devices such as the laryngeal mask, lighted stylet and rigid fibreoptic laryngoscopes, in the setting of unanticipated difficult airway, are effective in establishing a patient airway, may reduce morbidity and are occasionally lifesaving. Evidence supports their use in this setting as either alternatives to facemask and bag ventilation, when it is inadequate to support oxygenation, or to the direct laryngoscope, when tracheal intubation has failed. Specifically, the laryngeal mask and Combitube have proved to be effective in establishing and maintaining a patent airway in "cannot ventilate" situations. The lighted stylet and Bullard (rigid) fibreoptic scope are effective in many instances where the direct laryngoscope has failed to facilitate tracheal intubation. The data also support integration of these devices into strategies to manage difficult airway as the new standard of care. Training programmes should ensure graduate physicians are trained in the use of these alternatives. Continuing medical education courses should allow physicians in practice the opportunity to train with these alternative devices.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't
  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Education, Medical, Continuing
  • Fiber Optic Technology
  • Humans
  • Intubation, Intratracheal*
  • Laryngeal Masks*
  • Laryngoscopy*