The efficacy of resuscitative thoracotomy in the trauma patient has been questioned. Survival rates are variable, but a review of resuscitative thoracotomy in the emergency department of our institution documented an overall survival rate of only 1.8%. Higher survival rates may be anticipated in patients initially presenting with signs of life who can be transported directly to the operating room prior to the need for resuscitative thoracotomy. To test this hypothesis, the clinical course of all injured patients undergoing urgent or exigent thoracotomy in the operating room between July 1983 and June 1989 was reviewed. There were 34 patients undergoing exigent/resuscitative thoracotomy, 8 with penetrating injuries, 25 with blunt trauma to multiple systems, and 1 with isolated blunt chest trauma. Eight median sternotomies were performed and 26 left or bilateral thoracotomies. Twenty-six patients underwent concurrent exploratory celiotomy. The overall survival rate was 9% (3 of 34). The survival rate for patients with penetrating injuries was 37.5% (3 of 8) and 0% (0 of 26) for those with blunt trauma. Fifty-four patients underwent urgent/nonresuscitative thoracotomy with an overall survival rate of 74% (40 of 54). Combined group survival rates were 49% overall, 77% for patients with penetrating wounds, and 22% for patients with blunt trauma. These data underscore the futility of resuscitative thoracotomy in patients with blunt trauma who have deteriorated to the point of being in extremis. The relatively high salvage rates in patients with penetrating injuries support continued use of resuscitative thoracotomy when vital signs are lost, particularly if the injury is to the thorax. Variability in reported survival rates may be primarily due to the mix of patients with blunt trauma and penetrating injuries and disagreement as to what constitutes a resuscitative thoracotomy.
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