Is pre-hospital thoracotomy necessary in the military environment?

J. J. Morrison, A. Mellor, M. Midwinter, P. F. Mahoney, J. C. Clasper

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

13 Scopus citations


Introduction: Exsanguination from penetrating torso injury is a major source of mortality on the battlefield. Advanced Life Support guidelines suggest 'on-scene' thoracotomy for patients in cardiac arrest following penetrating chest trauma. This requires significant resourcing and training. Experience from published series (31 pre-hospital thoracotomies with 3 survivors) suggests that when this manoeuvre is applied to a well selected group it is a significant and life-saving procedure. Can this be applied to military injuries? Methods: Over a 12 month period on Operation Herrick all patients who sustained significant thoracic trauma were retrospectively reviewed. Parameters were recorded to allow detailed analysis of injury pattern and operative management. Our main objective was to determine if an early (pre-hospital) thoracotomy would have influenced the outcome. Results: Over the period, 81 patients required operative intervention following thoracic trauma: 8 patients underwent emergency thoracotomy (performed as part of the resuscitation) and 14 underwent urgent thoracotomy (performed after physiology partly restored). There were 9 fatalities - 7 undergoing emergency thoracotomy and 2 post-operatively from multi-organ failure. Of the 7 intra-operative deaths 4/7 patients had thoracic injury and 6/7 had additional abdominal injuries. The median predicted survival of fatalities was 2.0% using Trauma Injury Severity Scoring. Discussion: Emergency thoracotomy should be performed in cardiac arrest following penetrating trauma as soon as possible. Highest survival rates in both in-hospital and pre-hospital thoracotomy are found in isolated cardiac stab wounds (19.4%). Poorest survival is found in multiply, ballistic injured patients (0.7%). The latter best reflects the injury pattern of military patients who have cardiac arrest following penetrating torso injury. Conclusion: As our injury pattern suggests, any pre-hospital thoracotomy on military patients is likely to require complex intervention in very challenging environments. Our evidence does not support the notion that earlier thoracotomy could improve survival. Crown

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)469-473
Number of pages5
Issue number5
StatePublished - May 2011


  • Ballistic trauma
  • Military surgery
  • Pre-hospital thoracotomy
  • Thoracic trauma


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