Cricothyroidotomy is usually regarded as an emergency surgical procedure in which a surgeon or other trained person cuts a hole through a membrane in the patient's neck into the windpipe in order to allow air into the lungs. Cricothyroidotomy is a subtype of surgical procedure known as a tracheotomy; in some situations, it is considered an elective alternative to other types of tracheotomy.
The primary purpose of a cricothyroidotomy is to provide an emergency breathing passage for a patient whose airway is closed by traumatic injury to the neck; by burn inhalation injuries; by closing of the airway due to an allergic reaction to bee or wasp stings; or by unconsciousness. It may also be performed in some seriously ill patients with structural abnormalities in the neck. Some surgeons consider a cricothyroidotomy to be preferable to a standard tracheotomy in treating patients in an intensive care unit.
The demographics of cricothyroidotomies are difficult to establish because the procedure is relatively uncommon in the general population, even in emergency situations. In the emergency room, the incidence varied between 1.7% and 2.7%. A study found that nine of a group of 1,560 patients admitted for blunt or penetrating injuries of the neck required emergency cricothyroidotomies, or about 0.5%.
Another study found that the most important single cause of injuries requiring emergency cricothyroidotomy was traffic accidents (51%), followed by gunshot and knife wounds (29%); falls (5%); and criminal assault (5%).
Most cricothyroidotomies are performed on adolescent and young adult males, because this group accounts for the majority of cases of neck trauma in the United States. It is estimated that injuries to the neck account for 5–10% of all serious traumatic injuries.
There are two basic types of cricothyroidotomy: needle cricothyroidotomy and surgical cricothyroidotomy.
Normal results for a needle cricothyroidotomy would be adequate ventilation of a patient with a blocked airway for a brief period of time of about 45 minutes.
Normal results of a surgical cricothyroidotomy would be adequate ventilation in emergency circumstances of a patient with a blocked airway for a period of about 24 hours.
The primary concerns in emergency medical treatment are sometimes known as the ABCs: Airway patency (openness), Breathing, and Circulation. Keeping the airway patent is critical to an injured person's survival. The signs of a blocked airway in people are obvious, including a bluish complexion (cyanosis); noisy breathing, unusual breath sounds, or choking; emotional agitation or panic; and often loss of consciousness.
In an emergency situation, the following are considered reasons for performing a cricothyroidotomy first rather than attempting to open or clear the patient's airway by other methods:
- Major injuries to the face or jaw, such as multiple fractures of the jawbone or severe fractures of the patient's midface. In many cases of facial injury, the airway is blocked by broken teeth or fragments of bone from the jaw and cheekbones.
- Burns in or around the mouth.
- A neurological disorder or damage that has caused the patient's teeth to clamp shut.
- Fractured larynx. Fractures of the larynx most commonly result from automobile or motorcycle accidents, but also occur in cases of strangulation or attempted suicide by hanging.
- Larynx swollen shut by allergic reaction to bee or wasp venom.
The first steps in preparation are the same for needle and surgical cricothyroidotomies. The patient is positioned lying on the back with a towel under the shoulders and the neck stretched backward (hyperextended). If the patient is conscious, he or she is given a local anesthetic. The doctor then palpates, or feels, the patient's throat for the thyroid cartilage, or Adam's apple. This piece of cartilage is an anatomical landmark for this procedure, which means that it is a structure that is relatively easy to identify and serves as a reference point for other structures. In men, the Adam's apple is easy to find by running the finger down the center of the neck. In women, however, the thyroid cartilage is less prominent. Below the thyroid cartilage is a softer area about the width of a finger; this is the cricothyroid membrane, which is a piece of tissue lying between the thyroid cartilage above it and the cricoid cartilage below it.
When the doctor has located the cricothyroid membrane, he or she will scrub the skin over it with a povidone-iodine solution to prevent infection.
Morbidity and mortality rates
In general, cricothyroiditomy has a very low mortality rate, even when performed outside a hospital. By contrast, the mortality rate for patients who lose airway patency is 33%. Overall, emergency cricothyroidotomy is considered an effective way to create an emergency surgical airway with low overall morbidity.
Cricothyroidotomy is generally considered a procedure of last resort, to be performed when other ways of opening the patient's airway have failed or are unavailable. It is frequently done if endotracheal intubation has been attempted and failed, or if intubation cannot be performed due to the nature of the patient's injuries. Endotracheal intubation is a procedure in which a breathing tube is introduced directly into the trachea through the patient's mouth or nose with the help of a laryngoscope. It is most commonly done during general anesthesia, but can also be performed to help the patient breathe.
One alternative to cricothyroidotomy is a technique known as transtracheal jet ventilation (TTJV). In TTJV, a syringe is used to introduce a catheter through the patient's cricothyroid membrane. The catheter is connected to a high-pressure oxygen supply. In hospital settings,
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Rebecca Frey, PhD
WHO PERFORMS THE PROCEDURE AND WHERE IS IT PERFORMED?
Under ideal circumstances, a cricothyroidotomy would be performed in a hospital emergency room, ICU, or trauma center by a general surgeon, otolaryngologist, or anesthesiologist. Because it is an emergency procedure, however, a medical student, physician's assistant, paramedic, or nurse may also perform cricothyroidotomies. Many trauma centers require paramedics and nurses specializing in emergency medicine to practice performing cricothyroidotomies at least twice a year in a clinical laboratory in order to keep their skill level high. Since the procedure is risky but uncommon, it is important for emergency personnel to feel comfortable with the equipment and techniques required.
Military personnel are trained to perform emergency cricothyroidotomies in combat situations. There are also cases reported of cricothyroidotomies being done in emergencies by civilian bystanders with some medical training.
QUESTIONS TO ASK THE DOCTOR
- Am I likely to have lasting side effects from this emergency procedure?