Sunday, December 7, 2014
The concept of transparency does not exist when it comes to trauma. For that reason, docs need a high index of suspicion when any victim walks or is carried through the door. The idea is this…most injuries can be taken at face value, but complications can exist, even in the most stable patient. For that reason, the concept of ruling out bad things is a routine thinking pattern in medicine. It does not mean that every test known to man has to be ordered, history and physical exam are powerful tools, but at least the doctor has to go through the mental gymnastics to be comfortable with the patient’s stability.
Every week, the NFL provides medical teaching moments. This time, it was learning that Dallas quarterback, Tony Romo, may have been playing for weeks with broken ribs. Bear receiver, Brandon Marshall goes down after a tackle, struggles to get up and ends up in the hospital with broken ribs and a collapsed lung. Same injury but Romo escapes without the complication that beset Marshall.
Breathing seems so simple and yet becomes very complicated when the chest wall is damaged. Normally, we breathe like a bellows, the ribs swing up and out, the diaphragm pushes down and air gets sucked into the lungs. That happens because the lungs are held against the chest wall by negative pressure between the two pleura, one lines the lung and the other lines the chest wall. Most people recognize pleural as the shiny skin when eating ribs. A pneumothorax or collapsed lung occurs when air gets into the space between those two linings and breaks the seal between the two. In trauma, a broken rib can cause a small tear into the lung tissue allowing that air leak to happen, but not always.
The pneumothorax is just one of the complications that have to be considered. It’s easy to be distracted by the pain of the broken fib and not concentrate on what’s important, the ability of the patient to breathe. The lung collapse is not all or nothing, it may be tiny and only seen as an incidental finding on a chest x-ray or Ct scan, it can be a complete collapse or the collapse can be somewhere in between. A smaller pneumothorax may not be appreciated on physical examination and for that reason a plain chest x-ray is an important screening tool in patients with chest injury. In addition to the collapsed lung, the doc will be looking for a contusion or bleeding in the chest. It is not meant to look for broken ribs. While more broken ribs presume increased force of trauma and increased risk of pneumothorax, the purpose of the test is to look for the lung damage and not any rib injury.
So Tony Romo keeps playing and Brandon Marshall goes to the hospital and gets a tube put in his chest. The way a traumatic pneumothorax is treated depends on how much air has escaped into the pleural space and how much the lung has collapsed. A tiny pneumothorax can be watched but larger ones need to have the air sucked out and the negative pressure re=established for the breathing mechanism to work again. A chest tube is placed through a stab incision in between the ribs and threaded into place. It is then hooked up to suct8ion and the patient is observed. If all goes well, the lung injury heals itself, the air leak stops and the tube can be removed in a couple of days. If all doesn’t go well, surgery may be required to repair the lung.
Aside from the lung, the ribs protect all sorts of vital structures from the heart and great vessels (think aorta, vena cava and others) in the chest, to the liver and spleen in the abdomen. Predicting the future is a fool’s game for doctors caring for trauma patients. Some, like Romo, will have an injury and do well. Others like Marshall will gradually decompensate with complications. Trauma is a worthy adversary and can lull doctors into a false sense of security when victims initially don’t look “too” injured. Just a reminder why medicine is a combination of science and art.
education-portal.com, dreamstime.com. @bmarshall twitter feed
This entry was tagged Brandon Marshall, chest tube, collapsed lung, pneumothorax, rib fracture, rib injury, Tony Romo, trauma