Tuesday, January 26, 2016

Percutaneous Chest Tubes: The Humane Choice

The Gist:  Small bore percutaneous catheters, often referred to as "pigtail" catheters, should be the initial means of treating many pneumothoraces and select other drainable thoracic pathologies as they cause less pain and capitalize on the commonly used seldinger technique [1-10].

Traditional tube thoracostomy is an invasive procedure.  For the past several years, international guidelines, individuals in the Free Open Access Medical education (FOAM) community, and various institutions have moved towards placing more pigtail catheters for urgent thoracic pathology.  Yet, this practice is still not ubiquitous.  I recently gave a talk on this to my program and, in the spirit of FOAM, have shared it:

Technique - Watch this video by Dr. Larry Mellick 
  • Seldinger style: uses a technique with which we are intimately familiar. The majority of emergency providers have likely done far more central lines than open tube thoracostomies. As such, a technique mentally and mechanically familiar to providers may be preferable.
  • Pearls for placement - Kulvatunyou and colleagues suggest "POW" pearls for placement.
    • P -Perpendicular: Ensure the finder needle is perpendicular to the rib during placement
    • O -Over the rib: Like chest tubes, pigtails go over the rib to avoid injury to the neurovascular bundle
    • W -Wary of wire kinking:  The wire may be prone to kinking, particularly upon dilation through the tough intercostal muscles.
  • Pneumothorax
    • Spontaneous pneumothorax: The British Thoracic Society has recommended small bore tubes over traditional chest tubes since 2010.
    • Traumatic pneumothorax:  Use of pigtail catheters have increased in many trauma communities, with success rates comparable to large bore chest tubes [8-11].
  • Effusions - pigtail catheters are frequently used to drain effusions, particularly simple effusions. Most of the primary literature on this topic has been conducted in children with parapneumonic effusions and has demonstrated that this technique is successful and safe [13].
  • Hemothorax/Complex fluid - Larger bore tubes (28F and larger) are typically used to drain hemothorax due to the feared complication of retained hemothorax.  A prospective review of 36, 14F pigtail catheters placed for hemothorax in trauma patients found no significant differences in complications or success between pigtails or chest tubes but wasn't powered to find important, infrequent complications [11].  An animal study found
The Good:
  • Less Painful - In addition to the procedure not requiring large, forceful separation of the and unsurprisingly, placing a smaller tube in the chest causes less pain, even 2 days after the procedure [10].
    • Pain in pigtail vs chest tube patients: Day 0 3.2  vs 7.7; p<0.001, Day 1 1.9 vs 6.2; p<0.001, Day 2 2.1 vs 5.5; p=0.04 (note: no power calculation performed)
  • Easy/Familiar Procedure - as above under "Seldinger technique"
  • May reduces some complications - The literature suggests that complications are typically at least equivalent between larger chest tubes and pigtails. More serious complications are difficult to quantify given the infrequency.
    • One study did show that infections were reduced in the pigtail group, possibly due to technique or a larger nidus for infection [2].
  • Outpatient treatment possible - In select patient groups with spontaneous pneumothorax and excellent follow up, a pigtail catheter may be connected to a heimlich valve and the patient may be discharged [7].
The Bad:
  • More predisposed to kinking - Due to the small, flexible tubing, these tubes may kink and obstruct the lumen.  The trauma literature suggests these complications may occur in 2-8% of cases [8-10].
  • Clogging - Drainage of some complex fluids (loculated effusion/hemothorax) may be more problematic through pigtail catheters as the small lumen may be easier obstructed with clot.
  • Time? The belief exists that open thoracostomy more expediently relieves pneumothorax compared with the percutaneous technique and is thus preferred in emergent, life-threatening situations. To date, there's no literature to support or refute this and the time a tube takes is likely provider dependent.
  • It's less cool - A certain pride and thrill exists with performing invasive procedures.  In discussions with individuals regarding barriers to uptake of the percutaneous technique the theme arose that performing this technique would demonstrate some sort of weakness by the provider. Note: this notion is not supported or addressed by the literature and is merely a thought about subconscious provider bias
1. Laws D et al. BTS guidelines for the insertion of a chest drain. Thorax. 2003 May;58 Suppl 2:ii53-9.
2.  Benton IJ, Benfield GF. Comparison of a large and small-calibre tube drain for managing spontaneous pneumothoraces. Respir Med. 2009 Oct;103(10):1436-40.
3. Dull KE, Fleisher GR. Pigtail catheters versus large-bore chest tubes for pneumothoraces in children treated in the emergency department. Pediatr Emerg Care. 2002 Aug;18(4):265-7.
4. Gammie JS et al. The pigtail catheters for pleural drainages: a less invasive alternative to tube thoracostomy. JSLS. 1999 Jan-Mar;3(1):57–61.
5. Kuo HC, et al. Small-bore pigtail catheters for the treatment of primary spontaneous pneumothorax in young adolescents. Emerg Med J. 2013 Mar;30(3):e17.
6.  Repanshek ZD, Ufberg JW, Vilke GM, Chan TC, Harrigan RA. Alternative Treatments of Pneumothorax. J Emerg Med. 2013 Feb;44(2):457-466.
7. Hassani B, Foote J, Borgundvaag B. Outpatient management of primary spontaneous pneumothorax in the emergency department of a community hospital using a small-bore catheter and a Heimlich valve. Acad Emerg Med. 2009 Jun;16(6):513-8.
8. Kulvatunyou N, Vijayasekaran A, Hansen A, et al. Two-year experience of using pigtail catheters to treat traumatic pneumothorax: a changing trend. J Trauma. 2011 Nov;71(5):1104-7.
9. Rivera L, O’Reilly EB, Sise MJ, et al. Small catheter tube thoracostomy: effective in managing chest trauma in stable patients. J Trauma. 2009 Feb;66(2):393–9
10.  Kulvatunyou N, et al. A prospective randomized study of 14-French pigtail catheters vs 28F chest tubes in patients with traumatic pneumothorax: impact on tube-site pain and failure rate. EAST Annual Surgical Assembly, Oral paper 12, Jan 17, 2013.
11. Kulvatunyou N, Joseph B, Friese RS, et al. 14 French pigtail catheters placed by surgeons to drain blood on trauma patients. J Trauma Acute Care Surg. 2012;73(6):1423–1427. 
12. Russo RM, Zakaluzny SA, Neff LP, et al. A pilot study of chest tube versus pigtail catheter drainage of acute hemothorax in swine. J Trauma Acute Care Surg. 2015;79(6):1038–1043. 
13.  Liu YH, et al. Ultrasound-guided pigtail catheters for drainage of various pleural diseases. Am J Emerg Med. 2010 Oct;28(8):915-21
14. Inaba K, Lustenberger T, Recinos G. Does size matter? A prospective analysis of 28-32 versus 36-40 French chest tube size in trauma. The journal of trauma and acute care surgery. 72(2):422-7. 2012.


  1. Great post! Unfortunately, we haven't been able to secure pigtails in our ED...but that is the preferred tube by interventional pulmonary here. We do have small seldinger style tubes, thal quicks, 16 F I believe. I've probably placed 6-7 of those, and they worked well. One problem I had was trying to figure out the best point of entry and direction to aim the hallow needle. I started out entering the skin over rib ( the rib below the selected space) I would then try to angle my needle more cranially and up and over the rib into the space. This is where I ran into some problems. I think keeping it perpendicular as you mention is probably easier, I'm just wondering if you run the risk of going straight into the lung, or at least have difficulty in aiming cranially?

    Again, great post



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