UMEM Educational Pearls

Category: Trauma

Title: Go or No Go part 2: ED Resuscitative Thoracotomy in Trauma

Keywords: thoracotomy, survival, prognosis (PubMed Search)

Posted: 6/9/2023 by Robert Flint, MD (Emailed: 6/11/2023)
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Recognizing that the studies discussing emergency department thoracotomy (ERT) in traumatic injuries are performed at large institutions where surgical back-up is available, emergency physicians should be familiar with the indications of emergency department thoracotomy in the setting of trauma. An informed decision should be made based on resources available along with the limited literature available to make the best decision for the patient and staff present.

Adding to last week’s pearl of no cardiac activity and no pericardial fluid on FAST exam, what else prognosticates intact survival? A 2020 paper concluded “ERT had the highest survival rates in patients younger than 60 years who present with signs of life after penetrating trauma. None of the patients with blunt trauma who presented with no signs of life survived.” 1A review in Trauma last month recommended: “Based on our scoping review of existing literature, we can conclude three major findings in the context of RT: (1) Resuscitative Thoracotomies (RT)  performed in the setting of blunt trauma have a worse prognosis compared to patients undergoing RT for penetrating injuries, (2) procedures that have the potential to delay patient transport to hospital, such as intubation, may significantly increase the risk of mortality and (3) the presence of signs of life or hemodynamic stability in the prehospital or in-hospital setting are positive survival predictors in the setting of RT” 2 The best outcome is in patients brought immediately to an ED (preferably a trauma center) with limited on scene time. Police transport had a major association with survival in these patients. Stab wounds have the highest rate of intact survival.

         For those at non-trauma centers, have a conversation within your ED group as well as with general surgeons (if available) to decide ahead of time if this procedure will be utilized in the setting of traumatic cardiac arrest and in which patient population.


1.    Vahe S Panossian , Charlie J Nederpelt , Majed W El Hechi , David C Chang , April E Mendoza , Noelle N Saillant , George C Velmahos Haytham M A Kaafarani   Emergency Resuscitative Thoracotomy: A Nationwide Analysis of Outcomes and Predictors of Futility J Surg Res. 2020 Nov;255:486-494. doi: 10.1016/j.jss.2020.05.048. Epub 2020 Jul 1.

2.    Radulovic N, Wu R, Nolan B. Predictors of survival in trauma patients requiring resuscitative thoracotomy: A scoping review. Trauma. 2023;0(0). doi:10.1177/14604086231156265