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A tension pneumothorax requires immediate decompression using a needle thoracostomy. According to advanced trauma life support guidelines this procedure is performed in the second intercostal space (ICS) in the midclavicular line (MCL), using a 4.5-cm (2-inch) catheter (5-cm needle). Previous studies have shown a failure rate of up to 40% using this technique. Case reports have suggested that this high failure rate could be because of insufficient length of the needle.To analyze the average chest wall thickness (CWT) at the second ICS in the MCL in a trauma population and to evaluate the length of the needle used in needle thoracostomy for emergency decompression of tension pneumothoraces.Retrospective review of major trauma admissions (Injury Severity Score >12) at the Foothills Medical Centre in Calgary, Canada, who underwent a computed tomography chest scan admitted in the period from October 2001 until March 2004. Subgroup analysis on men and women, <40 years of age and ≥40 years of age was defined a priori. CWT was measured to the nearest 0.01 cm at the second ICS in the MCL.The mean CWT in the 604 male patients and 170 female patients studied averaged 3.50 cm at the left second ICS MCL and 3.51 cm on the right. The mean CWT was significantly higher for women than men (p < 0.0001). About 9.9% to 19.3% of the men had a CWT >4.5 cm and 24.1% to 35.4% of the women studied.A catheter length of 4.5 cm may not penetrate the chest wall of a substantial amount (9.9%–35.4%) of the population, depending on age and gender. This study demonstrates the need for a variable needle length for relief of a tension pneumothorax in certain population groups to improve effectiveness of needle thoracostomy.