Korean J Thorac Cardiovasc Surg 2011;44:260-265
□ Case Report □
ISSN: 2233-601X (Print) ISSN: 2093-6516 (Online)
− 260 −
*Department of Thoracic and Cardiovascular Surgery, Chonbuk National University Hospital, Chonbuk National University Medical School
Received: October 22, 2010, Revised: December 31, 2010, Accepted: May 10, 2011
Corresponding author: Min-Ho Kim, Department of Thoracic and Cardiovascular Surgery, Chonbuk National University Hospital, Chonbuk
National University Medical School, San 2-20, Geumam-dong, Deokjin-gu, Jeonju 561-180, Korea
(Tel) 82-63-250-1489 (Fax) 82-63-250-1480 (E-mail) email@example.com
C The Korean Society for Thoracic and Cardiovascular Surgery. 2011. All right reserved.
CC This is an open access article distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution Non-Commercial License (http://creative-
commons.org/licenses/by-nc/3.0) which permits unrestricted non-commercial use, distribution, and reproduction in any medium, provided the
original work is properly cited.
Postintubation Tracheal Ruptures
− A case report −
Kyung Hwa Kim, M.D.*, Min-Ho Kim, M.D.*, Jong-Bum Choi, M.D.*,
Ja-Hong Kuh, M.D.*, Jung-Ku Jo, M.D.*, Hyun Kyu Park, M.D.*
Tracheobronchial ruptures (TBR) rarely complicate surgical procedures under general anesthesia. Seemingly un-
eventful intubations can result in injury to the trachea, which often manifests as hemoptysis and subcutaneous
emphysema. We present 2 patients with postintubation TBR who were treated surgically and discuss considerations
in the management of this potentially lethal injury.
Key words: 1. Tracheal rupture
2. Intubation, intratracheal
1) Patient 1
A 68-year-old woman who had a history of lumbar spine
surgery under general anesthesia at another center was trans-
ferred to our hospital with dyspnea and subcutaneous
emphysema. One hour after extubation, she had hemotysis
and dyspnea. During the following six hours, progressive sub-
cutaneous emphysema and dyspnea developed. She was 145
cm tall and weighed 45 kg. A chest showed subcutaneous
emphysema of the neck and pneumomediastinum (Fig. 1A).
Thoracic computed tomography (CT) scans showed subcuta-
neous emphysema and the disappearance of tracheal posterior
membranous wall continuity (Fig. 1B). We decided on an
emergency operation. She reached the operating table 7 hours
after lumbar spine surgery. During operation, a fiberoptic
bronchoscope was used to verify double-lumen endobronchial
tube placement, and showed a linear tracheal laceration of the
posterior membranous wall at the distal part of the trachea
(Fig. 1C). She underwent a right thoracotomy and tracheal re-
pair of about 7 cm of a membranous tracheal linear lacer-
ation arising 3 cm from the carina (Fig. 1D). During the su-
turing of the laceration, the endotracheal tube was withdrawn
several times to allow good exposure of the tracheal tear.
The laceration was repaired with 4-0 Monosyn interrupted
stitches (B. Braun Aesculap AG & Co KG, Tuttlingen,
Germany), starting from the proximal end of the tear. Once
the laceration was repaired, the anesthesiologist advanced the
original orotracheal tube beyond the suture.
2) Patient 2
A 52-year-old woman who had a history of lumbar spine
surgery under general anesthesia at another center was trans-
ferred to our hospital with subcutaneous emphysema. She re-
ported having dyspnea and presented with subcutaneous
emphysema. She was 158 cm tall and weighed 60 kg. She
had a history of percutaneous coronary intervention due to
non-ST elevation myocardial infarction 3 years prior. Chest
Postintubation Tracheal Ruptures
− 261 −
Fig. 1. A chest film shows subcutaneous emphysema of the neck and pneumomediastinum (A), and computed tomography scans of the
chest show subcutaneous emphysema and disappearance of tracheal posterior membranous wall continuity (B). A fiberoptic bronchoscope
reveals a linear tracheal laceration of the posterior membranous wall at the distal part of the trachea (C). Intraoperative photographs show
a membranous tracheal linear laceration of about 7 cm arising 3 cm from the carina (D).
film showed a marked pneumomediastinum and subcutaneous
emphysema of the neck (Fig. 2A). Thoracic computed tomog-
raphy (CT) scans showed marked pneumomediastinum and
pneumopericardium, but did not show lesions warranting sus-
picion of tracheal or esophageal injury (Fig. 2B). The next
day, progressive subcutanoues emphysema and dyspnea
developed. A fiberoptic-bronchoscopy was performed. Bron-
choscopy confirmed a 4-cm posterior membranous tracheal
laceration approximately 5 cm from the carina (Fig. 2C). She
was immediately brought to the operating table. She reached
the operating table 23 hours after lumbar spine surgery. She
also underwent a right thoracotomy and tracheal repair (Fig.
2D) in which the same technique as patient 1 was utilized
without the double-lumen endobronchial tube placement.
The postoperative course was uneventful, and the patients
were discharged at the sixth and fifth postoperative days,
respectively. Bronchoscopic follow-up showed a complete re-
pair of the posterior tracheal wall tear (Fig. 3), and there
were neither symptoms nor signs of tracheal stenosis (Fig. 4).
Despite the large number of intubations performed every
day, postintubation tracheal rupture (PiTR) is a very rare but
complication of general anesthesia. The first case series of
PiTR was not published until 1995  and an estimate of the
Kyung Hwa Kim, et al
− 262 −
Fig. 2. A chest film shows a marked pneumomediastinum and subcutaneous emphysema of neck (A) and computed tomography scans of
chest show marked pneumomediastinum and pneumopericardium but does not show lesions indicating tracheal or esophageal injury (B).
Bronchoscopy reveals a 4-cm posterior membranous tracheal laceration approximately 5 cm from the carina (C). Intraoperative photographs
show membranous tracheal linear laceration about 4 cm in length (D).
shows a complete repair of the pos-
terior tracheal wall tear (A=Patient
1; B=Patient 2).
3. Bronchoscopic follow-up
incidence in the last decade ranged from 0.05% to 0.37% of
all orotracheal intubations performed .
PiTR should be differentiated from tracheobronchial in-
juries of traumatic origin since the different mechanisms lead
to different morphologic appearances and therapeutic options.
Traumatic TBR is usually the result of blunt chest trauma
and appears as horizontal or irregularly shaped disruptions in-
volving the main carina and often extending into the main
Postintubation Tracheal Ruptures
− 263 −
Fig. 4. Tracheobronchus 3D reconstruction of the first patient
shows a well repaired trachea and no tracheal stenosis.
bronchi. PiTR, in contrast, usually presents as longitudinal
lacerations of the posterior tracheal wall, either centrally or
laterally, such that the membranous wall is avulsed from its
cartilaginous insertion [2,3].
The exact mechanism underlying the lesion is uncertain.
There is a series of risk factors that contribute to PiTR; these
factors may be divided into mechanical and anatomical.
Mechanical factors include multiple forced attempts at in-
tubation, inexperience of the health professional, endotracheal
tube introducers that protrude beyond the tip of the tube,
overinflation of the cuff (diffusion of nitric oxide into the
cuff), incorrect positioning of the tip of the tube, reposition-
ing the tube without deflation of the cuff, inappropriate tube
size, significant cough, and movements of the head and neck
while the patient is intubated . The anatomical factors in-
clude congenital tracheal abnormalities, weakness of the pars
membranosa of the trachea, chronic obstructive pulmonary
disease and other inflammatory lesions of the tracheobron-
chial tree, diseases that alter the position of the trachea
(mediastinal collections, lymph nodes, or tumors), chronic use
of steroids, advanced age, and female sex . In the latter
aspect, age also appears to play a role because, in the series
published, there was not only evidence of female predom-
inance, but the mean age of these women was over 50 years
in the majority of the series published [3,4].
Some authors have suggested that PiTR may present more
frequently in women because the pars membranosa is weaker
in women than in men, the use of endotracheal tubes of a
larger size than appropriate for women, or that women are
not as tall and, as a consequence, the endotracheal tube is
positioned significantly more distantly in a trachea that is al-
ready smaller . In the studies by Marty-Ane et al. , all
patients had a height under 165 cm. Our experience is similar
to those reported by other centers concerning the patients
(short women) , the type of intubation (single-lumen or
double-lumen tube) , and the site of the tear (the pars
The first signs of its presence usually appear within 12
hours of intubation [2,3,7]. Except for the case of intra-
operative evidence, the appearance of symptoms such as head
and neck emphysema, hemoptysis, and dyspnea should raise
the suspicion of tracheobronchial ruptures.
Very often, the clinical manifestations of the lesion are not
immediately obvious, and presentation can mimic that of oth-
er clinical conditions. Early diagnosis or, if this is not possi-
ble, high clinical suspicion may be associated with lower
mortality, since either would likely lead to earlier therapeutic
maneuvers. A delay in diagnosis could favor the onset of me-
diastinitis, with deterioration in the clinical situation [2,8].
Clinical suspicion must be followed by diagnostic con-
firmation, which is achieved by direct visualization of the tra-
cheal rupture by bronchoscopy. This procedure provides data
on the exact site and of the lesion, helps to plan the ther-
apeutic approach, and can be used to reposition the tube or
reintubate the patient if this is necessary .
Although bronchoscopic evaluation is the gold standard for
diagnosis, CT scanning may provide valuable information.
Radiologic signs that suggest a TBR include subcutaneous
emphysema without evidence of pneumothorax, irregularity in
the posterior tracheal membrane, overdistention of the endo-
tracheal balloon, and a displaced endotracheal tube in relation
to the trachea [2,3]. Indeed, our initial suspicion that the first
patient had a TBR was based on her CT scan findings.
Consensus has not yet been reached on the management of
PiTR [2,3,7-9]. Early surgical repair has traditionally been
considered the cornerstone of therapy for PiTR [1,2,4-8,10].
Recommendations regarding management of TBR complicat-
Kyung Hwa Kim, et al
− 264 −
ing intubation have historically been based on experiences
with blunt tracheobronchial ruptures in which surgical repair
is usually required.
However, over the past 20 years, nonoperative management
of TBR has been proposed for select patients in the following
circumstances: stable vital signs, easy achievement of an ad-
equate functional respiratory status under mechanical ven-
tilation or in spontaneous ventilation, absence of esophageal
injury, minimal mediastinal fluid collection, nonprogressive
pneumomediastinum or subcutaneous emphysema, absence of
sepsis, short ruptures, and delayed diagnosis [2,3,7-10]. If
there is enough distance between the tear and the carina, the
injury can often be excluded with the cuff of the endo-
tracheal tube. In such circumstances, the use of an endo-
tracheal tube with a subglottic suction port will avoid the
pooling of secretions at the level of the injury. For TBR that
involve the distal third of the trachea or extend into the car-
ina, selective main stem bronchus intubation has had a high
rate of success. In all cases, ventilator settings should attempt
to minimize high inspiratory pressures and tidal volumes to
avoid exacerbating the tear [2,3,7,9]. Because of the risk of
mediastinitis, wide-spectrum antibiotics should be ad-
ministered for at least 1 week after the injury has been
identified. Complete healing usually occurs within 1 month,
unless factors such as steroid use, immunosuppression, or se-
vere malnutrition impede healing . The use of expandable
tracheal stents for the treatment of TBR has been described
and recommended for patients who are poor surgical candi-
dates with lesions not amenable to observation alone .
Operative management of TBR has been well described
[1,2,4-8,10]. The surgical technique will depend on the type
and of the lesion. In patients with lacerations of the proximal
two-thirds of the trachea, a cervical approach is preferred
[2,3,10]. A longitudinal anterior tracheotomy is made to ac-
cess the injury, which is then closed primarily. Injuries in the
distal one-third are best accessed through a right thoracotomy,
with direct repair of the laceration without resection [2,3,10].
The length of the TBR as an indication for surgical manage-
ment has been debated. Kaloud et al. recommended operating
for any TBR lesion greater than 1 cm in length . Gabor et
al. , in cases of mixed iatrogenic and blunt tracheobron-
chial injuries, recommended that ruptures greater than 2 cm
in length be repaired. Jougon et al., in contrast, proposed
nonoperative management if the TBR was smaller than 4 cm
. In the future, minimally invasive techniques such as vid-
eothoracoscopy may also be used.
Treatment is controversial, although it appears that con-
servative management is associated with a better outcome.
The results of the recent larger case series published demon-
strate that there is ever more evidence to support conservative
management [2,3,7,9], allowing for the possible closure of the
tracheal tear by adopting an expectant (conservative)
approach. Moreover, some series have demonstrated that sur-
gical repair in critically ill patients is a procedure with a
mortality that can reach 71% .
The treatment guidelines until recently were based on a
heterogeneous series of case reports involving different
etiologies. Thus, goals when treating such patients should in-
clude early recognition, appropriate antibiotic coverage, care-
ful selection of operative candidates, and proper endotracheal
tube and ventilator management.
We suggest that, except for selected cases in which non-
surgical therapy is indicated, surgery is the treatment of
choice in the vast majority of postintubation tracheal injuries.
When treated optimally, selected patients with TBR can fully
and more quickly recover from surgical intervention than
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