Burr holes by emergency physicians

Emergency physicians at Hennepin County Medical Centre (HCMC) are trained in skull trephination (drilling a burr hole) for patients with coma, anisocoria and epidural (extradural) haematoma (EDH) who have not responded to osmotic agents and hyperventilation. This may be particularly applicable in centres remote from neurosurgical centres where delays caused by interfacility transfer are associated with increased morbidity and mortality.

Dr Smith and colleagues from HCMC describe a series of five talk-and-deteriorate patients with EDH who underwent skull trephination. 3 had complete recovery without disability, and 2 others had mild to moderate disability but with good to excellent cognitive function. None had complications from the procedure other than external bleeding from the already lacerated middle meningeal artery. In 4 of 5 cases, the times were recorded. Mean time from ED presentation to trephination was 55 min, and mean time from ED to craniotomy was 173 min. The mean time saved was 118 min, or approximately 2 h.

All trephinations were done by emergency physicians, who had received training in skull trephination as part of the HCMC Emergency Medicine Residency or as part of the Comprehensive Advanced Life Support (CALS) course. Training was very brief and involved discussion of the treatment of EDH, review of a CT scan of EDH, and hands-on practice on the skull of a dead sheep, using the Galt trephinator.

An excellent point made by the authors reminds us that patients with EDH who talk-and-deteriorate (those with the traditionally described “lucid interval”) have minimal primary brain injury and frequently have no brain parenchymal injury. Thus, if the EDH is rapidly decompressed, the outcome is significantly better than for deterioration due to other aetiologies. The authors recommend in EDH that the procedure should be done within 60–90 min of onset of anisocoria. A review of other studies on the procedure would suggest that case selection is critical in defining the appropriateness of the procedure: talk-and-deteriorate, coma, anisocoria, and a delay to neurosurgical decompression.

Emergency Department Skull Trephination for Epidural Hematoma in Patients Who Are Awake But Deteriorate Rapidly
J Emerg Med. 2010 Sep;39(3):377-83

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One Response to Burr holes by emergency physicians

  1. Interesting how ideas go full circle! I entered EM when the idea of EPs doing this was going out of fashion – as medical students we were taught to localise the site of a EDH on the basis of which pupil was blown. Then the advent of rapid access to CT made the clinical skill less vital and patients were referred to neurosurgeons. However there are still situations where EPs performing the burr hole could save lives so this is a positive re-development of a lost skill.

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