Comparative incidence of venous air embolism and associated hypotension in adults and children operated for neurosurgery in the sitting position

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Background and objective:

Venous air embolism is a constant threat during neurosurgery performed in the sitting position. No large prospective study has compared the incidence of venous air embolism and associated hypotension between adults and children.


Four hundred and thirty patients (334 adults, 96 children) scheduled to undergo planned posterior fossa surgery in the sitting position (between January 1989 to December 1994) were studied with end-tidal carbon dioxide monitoring. Intraoperatively, a sudden and sustained decrease in end-tidal carbon dioxide tension of >0.7 kPa was presumed to be due to venous air embolism. Management during the episode was on the established guidelines. Hypotension (decrease in systolic arterial pressure of 20% or more from the previous level) was treated with crystalloids and/or a vasopressor.


Capnometry detected a 28% incidence rate of air embolism in adults (93/334) and a 22% incidence rate in children (21/96) (P = 0.29). In both groups, the highest incidence rate of embolism took place during muscle handling (44% of adults versus 38% of children, P = 0.8). Embolic episodes were accompanied by hypotension in 37% of adults (34/93) and in 33% of children (7/21) (P = 0.98). To restore arterial pressure to pre-embolic levels, 53% of adults (18/34) and 43% of children (3/7) were administered vasopressors (P = 0.94). There was no intraoperative mortality. The surgical procedure on one adult was abandoned because of persistent hypotension following the embolic episode.


The incidence of venous air embolism and consequent hypotension is similar in adults and children.

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