Empyema and restrictive pleural processes after blunt trauma: An under-recognized cause of respiratory failure AMERICAN SURGEON Watkins, J. A., Spain, D. A., Richardson, J. D., Polk, H. C. 2000; 66 (2): 210-214


Respiratory failure is a common complication among patients sustaining major blunt trauma. This is usually due to the underlying pulmonary injury, pneumonia, or adult respiratory distress syndrome. However, we have frequently found these patients to actually have a pleural process as the cause of their respiratory failure. Our objective was to assess the frequency of empyema and restrictive pleural processes after blunt trauma and their contribution to respiratory failure. We retrospectively reviewed all blunt trauma patients over a 5-year period who required a thoracotomy and decortication for empyema. Twenty-eight patients with blunt trauma required a thoracotomy and decortication for empyema. The most common finding was infected, loculated hemothorax/effusion in 23 patients, whereas 5 had an associated pneumonia. Chest radiographs were nondiscriminating, whereas CT scans in 25 patients showed previously unrecognized fluid collections, air-fluid levels, or gas bubbles. Neither thoracentesis nor placement of additional chest tubes was helpful. Positive cultures were uncommon. Ventilator dependence was present preoperatively in 13 patients who were on the ventilator an average of 13 days preoperatively and only 5.8 days postoperatively. Several patients believed to have adult respiratory distress syndrome were weaned within 72 hours of operation. All patients were ultimately cured. Empyema is an under-recognized complication of blunt trauma and may contribute to respiratory failure and ventilator dependence. Although difficult to diagnose, empyema should be considered in blunt trauma patients with respiratory failure and an abnormal chest radiograph. CT aids in the diagnosis, and the results of surgical treatment are excellent.

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View details for PubMedID 10695756