Value of Thoracic Computed Tomography in the First Assessment of Severely Injured Patients with Blunt Chest Trauma: Results of a Prospective Study

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Abstract

Objective

The aim of this prospective study was to evaluate whether early thoracic computed tomography (TCT) is superior to routine chest x-ray (CXR) in the diagnostic work-up of blunt thoracic trauma and whether the additional information influences subsequent therapeutic decisions on the early management of severely injured patients.

Patients and Methods

In a prospective study of 103 consecutive patients with clinical or radiologic signs of chest trauma (94 multiple injured patients with chest trauma, nine patients with isolated chest trauma), an average Injury Severity Score of 30 and an average Abbreviated Injury Scale thorax score of 3, initial CXR and TCT were compared after initial assessment in our emergency department of a Level I trauma center.

Results

In 67 patients (65%) TCT detected major chest trauma complications that have been missed on CXR (lung contusion (n = 33), pneumothorax (n = 27), residual pneumothorax after chest tube placement (n = 7), hemothorax (n = 21), displaced chest tube (n = 5), diaphragmatic rupture (n = 2), myocardial rupture (n = 1)). In 11 patients only minor additional pathologic findings (dystelectasis, small pleural effusion) were visualized on TCT, and in 14 patients CXR and TCT showed the same pathologic results. Eleven patients underwent both CXR and TCT without pathologic findings. The TCT scan was significantly more effective than routine CXR in detecting lung contusions (p < 0.001), pneumothorax (p < 0.005), and hemothorax (p < 0.05). In 42 patients (41%) the additional TCT findings resulted in a change of therapy: chest tube placement, chest tube correction of pneumothoraces or large hemothoraces (n = 31), change in mode of ventilation and respiratory care (n = 14), influence on the management of fracture stabilization (n = 12), laparotomy in cases of diaphragmatic lacerations (n = 2), bronchoscopy for atelectasis (n = 2), exclusion of aortic rupture (n = 2), endotracheal intubation (n = 1), and pericardiocentesis (n = 1). To evaluate the efficacy of all those therapeutic changes after TCT the rates of respiratory failure, adult respiratory distress syndrome, and mortality in the subgroup of patients with Abbreviated Injury Scale thorax score of > 2 were compared with a historical control group, consisting of 84 patients with multiple trauma and with blunt chest trauma Abbreviated Injury Scale thorax score of > 2, prospectively studied between 1986 and 1992. Age (38 vs. 39 years), average Injury Severity Score (33 vs. 38), and the rate of respiratory failure (36 vs. 56%) were not statistically different between the two groups, but the rates of adult respiratory distress syndrome (8 vs. 20%; p < 0.05) and mortality (10 vs. 21%; p < 0.05) were significantly reduced in the TCT group.

Conclusions

TCT is highly sensitive in detecting thoracic injuries after blunt chest trauma and is superior to routine CXR in visualizing lung contusions, pneumothorax, and hemothorax. Early TCT influences therapeutic management in a significant number of patients. We therefore recommend TCT in the initial diagnostic work-up of patients with multiple injuries and with suspected chest trauma because early and exact diagnosis of all thoracic injuries along with sufficient therapeutic consequences may reduce complications and improve outcome of severely injured patients with blunt chest trauma.

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