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The Procedural Pause

Renowned emergency physician James R. Roberts, MD, and his daughter, Martha Roberts, ACNP, CEN, are teaming up to create a new EMN blog, The Procedural Pause.

The blog will focus on procedures that emergency medicine residents and midlevel providers are often called on to perform in the ED. Each case will cover the basics, the best approach for treatment, and pearls and pitfalls.

The Procedural Pause publishes anonymous case studies that required an ED procedure. The site welcomes all providers to share their ideas about emergency medicine, procedures, and experience with similar cases. Application of the information in this blog remains the professional responsibility of the practitioner.

Like all texts, manuals, support guides, and blogs, this site conveys personal opinions and experiences. Providers may approach a patient or procedure in many ways, and this blog is not a dictum nor is it meant to dictate standard of care. It is a clinical guide, not a legal document; do not reference this site in court or as a defense. It is your responsibility to follow your hospital’s procedures and protocol and to practice under the guidelines of your professional license.

Monday, August 03, 2015

This blog teaches procedures, with its case studies and videos intended to help you perfect your technique and strengthen your confidence. This month we explore issues related to procedural patient impact. How will your intervention positively or negatively affect patient outcome? What happens when we decide to step in and complete a procedure?


A risk is always inherent when a provider undertakes a procedure, no matter how insignificant. Carefully, we weigh the pros and cons of the potential procedure with our patients. Will our intervention cause a positive effect or outcome? Our goals are to repair, resolve, or restore whatever may have gone wrong. That means there might be some sort of suffering along the way.


Or does it? There is a potential for any procedure to have a poor outcome. Our interventions are intended to help, not hurt the patient under our care.


Patient Impact: Pain Control

Pain control can make a major difference in every procedure, and is a best practice for our patient. Procedures can be completed more effectively and without distraction when a patient has less pain. And we are less likely to make a mistake, stop early, or prolong the procedure when we can perform without interruption. Pain control may even lead to better cosmetic outcomes because the patient is more relaxed, calm, and cooperative. Technique is only half the battle.


Vaginal Abscess I&D

It is impossible to maintain perfection 100 percent of the time. Poor patient compliance, financial hitches, unrealistic treatment times and department goals, lack of materials, and lack of follow-up, knowledge, and staff all contribute to poor patient outcomes. Procedural complications are not always simply chalked up to poor technique.


No one is perfect. Every day is a learning experience, and we do what we can with the resources we have. You will succeed by embracing basic concepts, using proper equipment, and not cutting corners. Part of that understanding is to use proper pain control, especially when draining a painful, sensitive vaginal abscess, as seen in this video:


Click here to watch the video on vaginal abscess.


During one incision and drainage of an abscess, the patient experienced horrific and traumatizing pain, and she returned two days later with a larger reaccumulated abscess, which had to be excised and drained for a second time. This was not happy news for the patient or the providers involved. The abscess may have reaccumulated despite our initial interventions. It may have returned, however, because it was not appropriately drained or treated the first time. Perhaps adequate drainage was limited because of pain. And she reported during a follow-up call one month later that she had painful and unsightly scar tissue.


Why did the patient have a poor outcome?

§ The patient’s pain was poorly managed during the procedure. It did not allow us to complete the procedure appropriately.

§ Our ED does not stock Word drainage catheters, which are best used for treating labial and Bartholin cysts/abscesses.

§ The nurse had to leave the room for a trauma, and we continued the procedure without pain medication.

§ Local anesthesia was not successfully achieved.

§ She had poor positioning during the procedure.

§ The patient was very fearful.

§ The patient was nauseated and vomited during the procedure, creating concern for aspiration and removing conscious sedation as an option.

§ The vaginal abscess was not completely drained because the patient was unable to tolerate additional procedure time secondary to lack of pain control.

§ The patient stated on the second visit that she felt abused by this procedure, which caused her significant stress. She stated that the physician never asked her if it was OK to discuss medical history in front of her abusive husband, and she had no chance to talk about more personal issues.

§ She felt we poorly explained the technique and rushed through it.

§ The provider performing the procedure answered her phone three times.

§ The patient spoke Spanish only, and though we used an interpreter, her discharge paperwork was in English.

§ The patient did not know how to take her own temperature and did not understand she should return for a fever of 104°F.

§ The pain medication and antibiotics made her vomit at home, so she never took the right doses.

§ The patient could not afford clindamycin anyway.


How do we fix these issues?

The majority of these issues are easy to resolve. This patient may have had a better outcome if the following issues were addressed:

§  You aren’t the boss, so you can’t fix staffing numbers, but don’t start any procedure unless you know you have the right people available to help you. Make the patient wait for an urgent procedure until you all can be ready to start without interruptions. Forget about your length of stay.

§  If the procedure is emergent, escalate this concern to the charge nurse or another provider and intervene early. You are in charge of the patient.

§  Always discuss a full history and perform a full physical before completing any procedure. This means if you are doing a procedural sedation, consider full cardiac and respiratory assessments. Call respiratory for a patient who might crump from COPD issues or orthopedics for an 86-year-old with afib and a dislocated hip. Maybe that one can be done in the OR.

§  Discuss all procedures (to your best ability depending on urgency) with the patient and a witness.

§  Have the patient sign and acknowledge the risks and benefits on a consent form. Don’t have her sign just for legal purposes. Have her sign so she understands what is going to happen.

§  Use an interpreter. Translate the paperwork into the patient’s language. We suggest Google Translate or another professional application your department allows.

§  Discuss pain control methods with the patient, and provide excellent pain management and local anesthesia.

§  Insert an IV for difficult procedures, such as labial or vaginal abscesses. Give patients adequate IV pain medication before the procedure and before local anesthetic infiltration.

§  Often forgotten, adding 1 ml of bicarbonate to 7-8 ml of lidocaine significantly reduces pain of lidocaine infiltration without compromising anesthetic effect.

§  Inject slowly and give enough lidocaine the first time to adequately block pain of the procedure. Consider a field block. It’s OK to use more lidocaine (generously through the incised skin edge) once the procedure causes pain.

§  PO challenge the patient before she is discharged. Consider an antiemetic.

§  Sit down and explain how the next 48 hours should look and feel for the patient.

§  Consider social work interventions for uninsured patients.

§  Use the right equipment.

§  Stockpile some discharge paperwork for common procedures or create a document on your computer that highlights your instructions. EPIC, for example, has information about cellulitis. Add some thoughtful additions and touches of your own, and save those as smart phrases. If you use paper charting, spend 10 minutes at home drafting a strong discharge packet. It will prevent patient bouncebacks and save an unbelievable amount of time.

§  Note that your involvement in your patient’s care does not stop at discharge. Make a follow-up call the next day for patients about whom you are particularly concerned. It takes almost no time at all to do, and your patients will be so thankful.



During a busy shift, it is easy to forget or forgo comfort measures or seize a patient teaching opportunity. Slow down! Pause for a minute to provide patients better pain management during uncomfortable and invasive procedures. Not only will it relax your patients, but their ensured and controlled comfort will make your job easier. It is the rare patient who will not benefit from pre-procedural IV opioid analgesia. Be generous!


Evidence-Based Practice Pearl

The most painful procedures for ED patients are nasogastric intubation, abscess incision and drainage, fracture reduction, and urethral catheterization, according to a study of more than 1,000 patients receiving the top 15 emergency department procedures. (Ann Emerg Med 1999;33[6]:652.) The study also showed that overall use of anesthetics before these procedures was low.


It is often noted that pediatric patients do not receive appropriate analgesia in the emergency department and as outpatients because of inadequate dosing. If you decide to give pain medication to pediatric patients, give them the proper dosage and discuss this with the parents.


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Wednesday, July 01, 2015

Most people will experience dental pain or a dental complication at some point in their lives. Dental pain is an incredibly common complaint by people of all ages, especially those who lack dental insurance and suitable hygiene habits. Sometimes, though, poor dentition or injury is simply a result of bad luck. Patients often present to the ED hoping to find a dentist and an answer to their problems.


Your first thought? “I am not a dentist. What am I going to do?” You’re right to an extent. We are not dentists, and often feel we have little to offer patients for acute issues that require equipment we don’t have and don’t know how to use. We certainly cannot assist with long-term tooth maintenance and treatment of chronic pain. As many of us know, pulling teeth in the ED is not something we do on demand and should not be expected to do.



Dental fracture, Ellis Type II, tooth #18, left, and common periodontal application kit and set up, right.


But we can do some procedures in the ED without a dentist being present or even consulted, and we can link the patient with some dental resources. There are many dental schools that accept patients for a marginal fee to improve their training skills. When it comes to educating your patients, suggest brushing twice a day, changing their toothbrush every six months, and having a dental cleaning at that time, too. In fact, we suggest you give out this information to all of your patients in the general discharge paperwork, even if they are not in your ED for dental pain. Give it to those especially on whom you complete smoking cessation instruction. Why not make it easy for them and their teeth? And while you are at it, ask them to tell their friends, too.


The best part about this particular procedure for dental fracture is that anyone can do it, and it only takes a few minutes. It is so simple that the actual procedure fit into a one-minute video.


The Approach

n Stabilization of fractured tooth (teeth)

n Dental block (if indicated) or topical pain medication for pain control

n Imaging (if indicated)

n Repair of lacerations (if indicated)

n Prepping the area of damage appropriately

n Mixing and application of bonding agent/periodontal dressing (calcium hydroxide or CaOH)

n Follow up with an oral surgeon and or dentist in 24 hours

n Pain control, antibiotics (if indicated)



Regular strength Coe-Pak periodontal bonding agent, left, includes the base and the catalyst, which are needed for activation of the base agent. A set of two cotton swabs with long plastic or wooden stems are needed for mixing and applying the agent, center. A general swirling motion is used to mix the agents together before application, right.


The Procedure

          n Have the patient lie on a stretcher at a 45-degree angle with excellent lighting.

          n Have the patient bite down on gauze if areas in the mouth are bleeding.

          n Depending on the type of fracture, complete appropriate dental block for pain relief. This is rarely needed, but it may be useful depending on patient’s comfort level and extent of dental injury.

          n Consider imaging if you are concerned about aspirated foreign body, facial fractures, or head injury.

          n Carefully examine the lips, especially those with lacerations. (The last fractured tooth I encountered ended up embedded in the patient’s upper lip, and it needed to be removed before suture repair.)

          n Examine and count all teeth, note them by number and approximation. Look for obvious fractures and then also consider micro-fractures from partially damaged fillings or teeth.

          n Note: Does your patient have a tongue ring? These can also cause dental trauma. Suggest to the patient that it be removed.

          n Prep the area of injury by having a partner set up dry wall suction and applying cotton gauze to the sides of the injured area. Note: The area must be dry or the periodontal bonding agent will not adhere correctly or safely.

          n Obtain bonding agents. There are many popular brands and agents (Coe-Pak, Reso-Pac, etc). We are specifically going to talk about Coe-Pak, which consists of a standard base and a catalyst.

          n Most bonding agents require mixing the agents in a 1:1 ratio, but products may have different mixing requirements. Find a product you like working with and try to stick with it.

          n Did you know that the majority of bonding agents come with a lined mixing packet card or pad? Place this card on a surface and use it to measure your bonding agents/materials before application. An injection gun is also a hot commodity, so hot that these items may be missing from your dental box. Just know they exist!

          n Place 1 cm of catalyst and 1 cm of base on the mixing card or other sterile mixing surface. We suggest opening a laceration tray to assist with this procedure because the hemostats may assist in application and sculpting later around the periapical areas. You can also use the instrument tray to mix your chosen product.

          n Use a swirling technique to mix the two agents if you have a small area to repair. A tongue blade may assist with this process. This is necessary to complete the chemical reaction and activation sequence of the agents. It takes about 30 seconds to mix most agents.

          n Some agents require a “balling up” type of application where a powder is used. These can be applied with your fingers rather easily. Remember to mix the catalyst and base well regardless of the type of bonding. If you are working with a larger area, combine the base and catalyst in a “balling up” process and then roll it out on the table into a tube-like structure (as thin as a pencil) for application.

          n Wait approximately five to 10 seconds before application. (Some products differ.)

          n Again please note: You may use either method: balling or direct application. We prefer balling the material before application, but direct application is also effective.

          n Retract the side of the mouth away from the injured area.

          n The now putty-like composite resin can be applied to the dental fracture itself over the natural surface of the tooth, regardless of depth of injury.

          n Shape and sculpt the periodontal bonding agent over the tooth/teeth. Create a flat surface (free of lumps and bumps) over the tooth and around the edges interproximally. Be sure the entire tooth is covered. This will allow for stronger hold and protection of the fractured tooth.

          n Consider using a small-nosed hemostat to shape the bonding around the injury. DO NOT use scalpels or needles to shape the mixture.

          n Most of the time, your fingers shape the area better than any tool. Use saliva from the patient’s mouth to keep it moist if it begins to dry out.

          n Wait approximately 60 seconds after applying, and then have the patient bite down (if able) to form a small indentation over the bonding. Be sure the bonding agent has had at least one minute to rest, or the patient may pull off the covering when the teeth meet the bonding.

          n Have the patient follow up with an oral surgeon or dentist within 24 hours.

          n Dental pain can be excruciating. We suggest prescribing the adult patient ibuprofen 600-800 mg tablets po q. 6-8 hours prn pain relief. NSAIDs will help treat inflammation and irritation to the gums. If you are feeling generous, Percocet or Vicodin will help the patient get at least one night’s rest. Prescribe narcotic pain medication at your discretion and in relation to the extent of patient injury, history, and presentation.

          n Suggest that the patient refrain from chewing food or gum on that side of the mouth. Encourage a soft diet.

          n Smoking cessation as needed.

          n Avoid brushing over the area with toothbrush, but the other teeth can be cleaned.


Dental fracture now dressed with periodontal dressing/bonding agent. It was later sculpted along the gum line for patient comfort and proper adherence.


The Pause

n Do not remix additional bonding agent with dirty hands/contaminated gloves after working inside the patient’s oral cavity. The bonding set usually can be used repeatedly, and it is completely acceptable to store and use the agents again. Do not throw it away after opening, but be sure to adhere to all expiration dates and product directions.

n What happens if the patient swallows any of the periodontal dressing? Most likely, nothing. Tell your patient that the mixture is nontoxic and safe. In fact, people can swallow parts of their braces or actual teeth without any complications. The parts simply pass through the GI system. Inhaling the dressing, however, can be life-threatening.



Watch application of Coe-Pak to a patient’s dental fracture.



n The area of injury needs to be dry before application of bonding agent.

n After mixing the bonding agent, wait 10-20 seconds before application. If you apply the mixture immediately, it will not be very easy to use. If you apply it too late, it will harden and not adhere to the tooth for very long. Do not use the cotton portion of the swab to apply the periodontal dressing. Use the stick portion of the swab for mixing and application.

n Homeopathic treatments using clove oil were popular for many years. Clove oil contains eugenol and can help with toothache or inflamed gingiva. Eugenol can cause nerve damage, and should only be used a few times or for one or two days. Most periodontal bonding agents today do not contain eugenol.

n Use bupivacaine 0.5% for dental blocks because it lasts longer for pain control.


Tip of the Month: Ellis Fractures

Ellis I: These crown fractures extend through the enamel only. These teeth are usually not tender and have no visible color change but have rough edges.

Ellis II: This is any fracture that involves enamel and the dentin layer. Teeth will be tender to the touch or air exposure. You may notice exposed dentin (yellow in color).

Ellis III: These fractures involving the enamel, dentin, and pulp layers, and will be exquisitely tender. You will see an area of pink pulp, redness, or blood toward the center of the tooth.


Reminder: Dental pulp may become infected easily. Pulpitis can occur after a dental fracture while patients are waiting to see a dentist or oral surgeon. Place the patient on antibiotics (typically penicillin VK 500 mg PO 4x/day for 10 days). If the patient is allergic, substitute clindamycin 450 mg PO 3x/day for 10 days. Other accepted antibiotics for potential or known infection include erythromycin, metronidazole, and amoxicillin-clavulanate.


Evidence-Based Practice Pearl

Did you do a good job? What did the dentists have to say? A small retrospective study of 25 ED providers found three ways that providers could approach dental fractures or avulsions. (Ann Emerg Med 2009;54[4]:585.) The periodontal pack took about four minutes to complete and was financially more appropriate. The study participants had no measurable or agreeable preference for a particular splinting or bandaging technique, but dentists preferred the use of reinforcement ribbon (96%) and light-cured composite (100%) when given the option. The only problem is that reinforcement ribbon and light-cured composite are difficult to obtain, stock, and use in the ED. It is also very costly and specialized, and those factors and the longer treatment time simply cannot be justified for use in the ED when CaOH bonding agents are just as effective. Although the specialist may prefer it, they may have to apply it.


The Language (NEW!)

Every specialty has some sort of new language with which you need to be familiar and use in documentation or description to your colleagues. If you are feeling adventurous and want to learn the dentistry lingo, here is a list of descriptive terminology used for differentiating tooth surfaces. Read our previous blog for more on tooth numbering and dental blocks. ( If you do consult the oral surgeon or dental consultant, he will want to know the number of the tooth and the location.


Terminology                                    Location

Facial                               Part of tooth that faces opening of mouth

Labial                               Facial surface of the incisors and canines

Buccal                              Facial surface of the premolars and molars

Oral                                 Area that faces the tongue or palate

Lingual                             Toward the tongue; the oral surface of the mandibular

and maxillary teeth

Palatal                              Toward the palate; the oral surface of the maxillary teeth

Approximal/interproximal     Contacting surfaces between two teeth

Mesial                              Interproximal surface facing anteriorly or closest

to the midline

Distal                               Interproximal surface facing posteriorly or away

from the midline

Occlusal                            Biting or chewing surface of the molars and premolars

Incisal                              Biting or chewing surface of the incisors and canines

Apical                               Toward the root of the tooth

Coronal                            Toward the crown or biting surface of the tooth


Source: Roberts JR, Hedges JR. Clinical Procedures in Emergency Medicine, 6th ed., Philadelphia: Saunders/Elsevier, 2014, pg. 1342.


If you want to hear some of the lingo, check out this very old video from the University of Michigan, free for public use and distribution for educational purposes. This classic video, although dated, uses principles we still use today. Watch here:


Final Thought

The American Heart Association published guidelines in Circulation about using antibiotics prior to dental procedures. They suggested that only those at greatest risk for bad outcomes from infective endocarditis should receive short-term preventive antibiotics before routine dental procedures. (2012;125[20]:2520.) This, of course, only applied to those who were waiting for a routine visit or procedure.


The literature found no compelling evidence that taking antibiotics prior to routine dental procedures prevents infective endocarditis in patients who are at risk of developing a heart infection because their hearts are already exposed to bacteria from the mouth, which can enter their bloodstream during basic daily activities such as brushing or flossing. Trauma, however, should always be considered as a possible increased risk of infection, and antibiotic use is best decided at time of presentation.


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Monday, June 01, 2015

Welcome to our new series, “Guts and Gore.” That title should serve as a warning that some of the videos we will use as teaching tools may be controversial and not for weak stomachs. We hope, however, that part of why you became an emergency provider was to handle sticky situations like the ones we will present. People like us have the ability to ignore blood and copious discharge, and instead focus on saving and improving the lives of our patients. Rarely are you thanked for this ability, and we hope this series on guts and gore will improve your technique, even when the going gets tough.


The Approach

n Proper identification of hematoma requiring drainage

n If unsure, use ultrasound-guided technique to identify fluid collection. Note: Much of the blood is a clot, with some free blood.

n Consider the use of IV or PO pain medication.

n Incision and drainage (I&D)

n Packing application

n Knowing the signs of compartment syndrome.

n Follow up with packing removal (if indicated) and/or surgical follow-up.


The Procedure

n Obtain a marking pen, mask, sterile gloves, gown, suture kit (for use of tools only), gauze, ACE bandage wrap, ¼-inch packing, and 1% lidocaine with epinephrine.

n Always have the patient lay supine for any I&D procedure to avoid vagal response.

n Mark the area with a pen. Highlight the area that encompasses the hematoma. This area should be carefully watched for the next 24-48 hours if you are concerned about compartment syndrome.

n Call a procedural pause time out.

n Inject the skin over the most prominent area of the hematoma with 2-3 mLs of 1% lidocaine with epinephrine. Inject slowly and carefully.

n Use an 11 or 15 blade scalpel to make a 2-3 cm incision over the top of the hematoma where anesthesia was applied. Some hematomas (depending on size) will need a larger incision. Note: A small puncture is not large enough to drain clots.

n Allow the initial blood to ooze out slowly. Add gentle pressure to assist with the drainage and to expel any clots.

n Use your finger or hemostat to help drain the hematoma by inserting it into the cavity when the drainage begins to slow down.

n Once the hematoma has drained to at least half of its initial size, consider using ¼-inch packing to assist with further drainage. Packing is only used for very large hematomas or those with large incision marks.

n Gently clean the area with saline. Do not aggressively irrigate.

n Apply a dry compression dressing with several pieces of gauze.

n Wrap the extremity with an ACE bandage on top of the gauze.

n Give the patient a sling if the hematoma is on the wrist or arm. Provide crutches if the hematoma is on a thigh or lower leg to assist with non-weight bearing.

n Have the patient follow up with her primary care provider or the ED in 24-48 hours for wound recheck and packing removal (if used).

n If the patient is on blood thinners such as Coumadin, Xarelto, or Plavix, check back here next month when we will address how to treat these patients.


New! Tip of the Week

Is this an abscess or a hematoma? This month, we introduce a new Procedural Pause challenge. Think outside the box, and be prepared for red herrings. Misleading and distracting diagnoses present in your emergency department on a daily basis. Our hope is that you can recognize the decoy early and act accordingly. We ask you, is this a hematoma or is it something else?



Is it a hematoma or a contusion? Sometimes the only way to know is to open it up. Photos by Martha Roberts, ACNP, CEN


This patient’s left hip actually turned out to be a common contusion, or nefarious hematoma. The patient’s initial complaint was, “I hit my leg a week ago on the bed,” and noticed that the area became “red and irritated.” The patient said the area “turned colors” and “felt kind of squishy and soft.” She also said she had had abscesses before in her groin and on her leg that were MRSA-positive. Ultrasound revealed fluid under the skin. The pocket, however, was not uniform.


The area palpated felt soft and buoyant. The only way to determine if this patient had an abscess with cellulitis or a simple hematoma was to open and drain it. When we opened the area, it was filled with gross blood and clots. There was no abscess at all. From this experience, we learned that patients can (especially those with diabetes) form skin infections related to old contusions. The hematoma was successfully drained, and the patient was placed on prophylactic antibiotics for Pseudomonas coverage. A drain was placed because of the size of the cavity, and she followed up in 24 hours with her primary care provider.


Evidence-Based Practice Pearl

Hematomas are filled with clots. It is a common misconception to assume that large, raised hematomas are filled with unclotted blood that will deflate as soon as punctured. Quite the contrary. Subcutaneous hematomas often are filled with clots, and take several minutes of coaxing and poking to deflate. The incision needs to be large enough to pass larger clots, or the patient will not have relief. Irrigation of the site is also controversial, as is suction, so you try it and let us know how it works. One may also assume that the hematoma has been drained successfully once it no longer bleeds freely. This is not the case. Compartment syndrome may still be lurking.


Compartment syndrome may cause rhabdomyolysis, renal failure, and generalized muscle ischemia. Perioperative morbidity and mortality are high. Fasciotomies are not always the best way to treat these issues. We suggest initial I&D to avoid compartment syndrome and the potential for fasciotomy. The goal is to identify these issues early, so that the latter does not occur. Fasciotomies have been found to be associated with worse outcomes and higher morbidity and mortality. (World J Surg 2003;27[6]:744.) The lesson: Evacuate the hematoma early.


If you have learned anything as a practicing provider or even as a student, we hope it’s the art of misconception. Be sure to question clinical pictures that just don’t add up. Be wary of quickly assuming a diagnosis to be commonplace. Assertiveness is important, but exercising a prudent approach is paramount. When in doubt, take a second look, and you will be everyone’s champion. Most importantly, you will do what is best for your patient. At the end of the day, we all want to sleep at night.


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Friday, May 01, 2015

Today you are the fast-track provider, and you are on the hunt for procedures. You notice a 35-year-old woman signing into triage with a chief complaint of wrist pain.


This patient looks otherwise healthy, is pushing a stroller with her right hand, and is carrying a second child on her left. What’s the emergency? There isn’t one, but it is an emergency to this patient because she cannot push that stroller another day! If she cannot push the stroller, then she cannot get the kids to day care. And, if she cannot get the kids to day care, then she cannot go to work. Ask anyone with children, it is an emergency.


This patient also says she is new in town and did not know where else to go, so she came to your Level I trauma center. Good thing you read this blog because you just made her day.


Chronic, recurrent, nontraumatic wrist pain may throw you for a loop. Words like “rheumatoid” and “fibromyalgia” flash in your mind. Things like “ANA” and “lupus” and “we don’t do that in the ED” also pop into your brain. Red flags such as “fever,” “infection,” and “diabetes” slip from your lips. Stay cool; you can totally fix this chronic wrist pain! Not only can you fix it, you can also feel confident about your diagnosis and treatment plan after reading this article. This month, we are going to touch upon — literally — tenosynovitis of the wrist. This painful chronic wrist pain can be solved with a simple two-touch technique.


Tenosynovitis is somewhat like a permit fish. It is rare, hard to catch, and can put up a good fight. Tenosynovitis is just as reclusive as the permit, and you will never forget it once you see it. De Quervain's tenosynovitis is a chronic but sometimes recurrent problem. The syndrome causes an inflammation of the synovium sheaths that surround the tendons of the extensor pollicis brevis and the abductor pollicis longus muscles of the thumb. The two parallel tendons assist with thumb movement. The cause of this type of tenosynovitis is still not well defined, although one of its nicknames is “mommy thumb.” Overuse and irritation can cause a flareup. Its onset causes significant wrist pain, tenderness, and immobility, so it deserves some attention.


The Approach

n Identification of De Quervain’s tenosynovitis using the Finkelstein test and two-tap technique

n Familiarization of proper steroid medications for injection

n Steroid injection into the wrist

n Orthopedic follow-up

n Possible surgery for recurrent issues


The Procedure

n Place the patient in a supine or sitting position. Avoid complications from vagal response by making your patient comfortable.

n Identify your landmarks. Locate the radial styloid process and the base of the thumb on the affected extremity.

n Have the patient make a fist. Then ask her to complete the Finkelstein test: Place the thumb into the fist, so the fist is holding down the thumb. Stress the tendons by having the patient tip her hand toward the ground. This should elicit exquisite pain.


Next, use your second and third fingers to identify the area of concern by tapping with these fingers lightly on the radial side of the wrist. Start at the base of the thumb and make your way up the wrist. This is known as the Roberts two-tap technique or Roberts sign. (Roberts JR, Hedges JR. Clinical Procedures in Emergency Medicine, 6th edition, Philadelphia: Saunders/Elsevier, 2014.)


Use a marking pen to note the area of extreme tenderness. You will make your injection wherever the patient has the most pain with palpation using the two-finger tapping technique.

n Premedicate the patient with 600-800 mg ibuprofen PO once. If there is a contraindication, consider using 650-1000 mg acetaminophen PO once.

n Order the appropriate corticosteroid from your pharmacy. You should use a long-acting corticosteroid such as Depo-Medrol or Kenalog (there are several brand names for methylprednisolone acetate). Depo-Medrol is an anti-inflammatory glucocorticoid for intramuscular, intra-articular, and soft tissue injection. It is available in three strengths: 20 mg/mL, 40 mg/mL, and 80 mg/mL. The appropriate dose for your adult patient is 40 mg diluted in 2 mL of 1% lidocaine, making a 3 mL dose.

n The lidocaine increases the volume and acts as an anesthetic.

n Clean the area with an alcohol swab.

n Use a 25-27-inch ½ g needle to inject the steroid lidocaine solution directly around the area affecting the tendon sheath. You will not be injecting the tendon directly!

n Note: You may consider injecting 1 mL more of the steroid lidocaine solution proximally and completing another injection more distally to cover the entire affected area. See video for more details.

Watch a video of Dr. Roberts demonstrating diagnosis and treatment of De Quervain’s tenosynovitis.



n A plain radiograph is not useful. Refrain from ordering a radiograph if you are quite certain this is tenosynovitis.

n Always consider gout, septic joint, or underlying autoimmune disorder. De Quervain’s tenosynovitis is still not well understood, and there are theories it may linked to lupus, Lyme disease, and other connective tissue disorders.

n Do not repeat injections in a short period of time. Consider telling the patient to wait six months or more before having the area injected again.

n Stenosis of tendons may be an issue. If you feel resistance during injection, you may be injecting the tendon itself, so retract the needle slightly. You cannot inject directly into a tendon. Your goal is to inject the area around the tendon.

n The patient should have complete pain relief in a minute or two if the appropriate area is injected. More solution may be required if not.

n Consider wrist immobilization using a plain thumb spica splint, resting the area, NSAIDs, and ice for patients who decline steroid injection and prefer a more conservative approach. Physical therapy is also an option.

n Oral steroids are not particularly helpful.

n The original pain will recur when the lidocaine wears off. Warn the patient of the post-injection flare — transiently increased pain that may occur in the first 24 hours. You may consider a few other doses of NSAIDs or acetaminophen.

n Temporary distal sensation loss in the thumb from the lidocaine is not uncommon.

n Complete pain relief should be obtained in two to three days.


Final Thoughts

Jim weighs in: Martha is a real wimp.

Martha weighs in: I had to hold the camera and be injected for this video. What the heck?! Thanks, Dad?


Tip of the Week

De Quervain’s tenosynovitis is most commonly seen in 30- to 50-year-olds and mostly women. It is important to ask patients about their daily activities, job, and even sexual history. Gonococcal infection can cause septic arthritis or tenosynovitis. Beware of injecting or jumping to the diagnosis of De Quervain’s if the patient has a fever. Gonoccocal infections can have an insidious onset and may be confused with De Quervain’s. Pain, redness, and swelling with an associated fever are NOT associated with De Quervain’s tenosynovitis. How can you tell the difference? Look for a painless, nonpruritic rash that consists of small papular, pustular, or vesicular lesions. Splinting is generally not required.


Did your procedure work? Call your patient in 48 hours, and if he is feeling back to normal, you found your permit fish! If your patient is a mother of five and her main job is working as a fishing guide in the keys, then you already know you did the right thing.


Evidence-Based Practice Pearl

Don’t be shy. A steroid injection will help your patient. A collective 2003 study citing the Medline and OVID databases on all published cases of De Quervain’s tenosynovitis found an 83 percent cure rate with injection alone. This rate was exponentially higher than any other therapeutic modality (61% for injection and splint, 14% for splint alone, 0% for rest or nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs). The evidence proves that injection alone is the best treatment for De Quervain’s. (J Am Board Fam Med 2003;16[2]:102.)



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Tuesday, March 31, 2015

Part 2 in a Series

Abscess incision and drainage should be loved and adored by all emergency providers because another abscess is waiting just behind the curtain. This month we highlight general guidelines for abscess incision and drainage, and show how to treat one in the video below. We will follow up with some additional videos in the months to come focusing on scalp, vaginal, and facial abscesses. And, just when you think you have seen it all, we will reveal a few more surprises.


Axillary abscess from hidradenitis. Photo by Martha Roberts.


The Approach

n  Identification of an abscess appropriate for I&D.

n  If unsure, use ultrasound to identify fluid.

n  Consider the use of IV or PO pain medication.

n  Incision and drainage (I&D).

n  Packing application.

n  Follow up with packing removal and/or surgical follow-up.


The Procedure

n Consider premedicating the patient with oral Motrin, Percocet, or Vicodin, or IV medication if local infiltration is not sufficient.

n Obtain laceration tray or surgical kit for I&D.

n Put patient in comfortable position.

n Prep using sterile gloves to keep it a clean procedure, though it is not meant to be a sterile one.

n Anesthetize the skin with 1% lidocaine. Inject slowly.

n Make a horizontal incision using an 11 or 15 blade scalpel, utilizing the entire length of the abscess. Do not make just a small stab.

n Allow pus to discharge freely at first, and then assist with gentle expression of the opened cavity.

n Once the cavity is fully expressed, use forceps to delicately break up any of the capsule inside the abscess.

n Depending on the size of the abscess, rinse with gentle jet lavage: 30-50 mLs of sterile water. Four to five sterile flushes usually do the trick.

n Pack the abscess with ¼-inch or ½-inch packing gauze. Soak the gauze in Betadine prior to insertion to allow for pliability.

n Cover the abscess with sterile gauze and leave in place for 24-48 hours. Try to use as little tape on the skin as possible to avoid further discomfort.

n If there is an associated cellulitis, then antibiotics may be required. Antibiotics are usually not indicated. We will cover this in future blogs.

n When the patient returns, wash out the cavity gently. You do not have to anesthetize the patient for this procedure; just be kind to this sensitive area.

n Bonus: If the capsule floats right out, that’s a good sign! Look for a white coated gel-like discharge in sac formation. If the abscess capsule is obvious in the cavity, attempt to remove it.

n Do not be afraid to complete I&D a second time (in 24-48 hours) if the wound has not appropriately drained. This will require anesthetizing the area again.



n Do not make the incision too small because it will not drain correctly. Be sure to make it the full length of the abscess. Bigger is better!

n Do not I&D a complicated abscess of the face, neck, or foot. You may consider getting ENT, plastics, or podiatry involved for these wounds because airway, scarring, and diabetes may not allow for standard and safe healing.

n If you see one abscess, there may be more. Discuss this with your patient. Consider surgical consult for pilonidal abscesses because they tend to recur. The entire cavity may need to be completely and surgically removed. Marsupialization is only beneficial for Bartholin cysts or abscesses.


Tip of the Week

Treating an abscess in a pregnant or post-partum woman? No big deal! You can do it using good judgment and proper follow-up. Stay tuned for future blogs and video workshops when we address vaginal abscesses during and after pregnancy.


Evidence-Based Practice Pearl

What about the immunocompromised patient? These patients make us a bit weak in the knees know. Leave it to the Canadians to help us piece together the literature. A large meta-analysis and database search by Korownyk and Allen suggests even patients who are immunocompromised do not necessarily need antibiotics. Incision and drainage is the treatment for almost all abscesses.


I&D under local anesthetic is “generally sufficient for abscess management” for patients who have no confounding risk factors, the authors write. They also note that “there is no compelling evidence for routine cultures or empiric treatment with antibiotics.” And as far as cultures go, level II evidence reveals “routine cultures do not change management or outcome for patients presenting with abscesses.” We hope that clears things up for some of you, including the abscess! (Can Fam Physician 2007;53[10]:1680;


Watch a video of Ms. Roberts draining an axillary abscess.



We highly recommend reading more here:


Read more about all kinds of abscesses in our archive.


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About the Author

James R. Roberts, MD & Martha Roberts, ACNP, CEN

James R. Roberts, MD, is the director of the division of toxicology at Mercy Catholic Medical Center, and a professor of emergency medicine at the Drexel University College of Medicine, both in Philadelphia. He is also the chairman of the editorial board of Emergency Medicine News, and has written InFocus for more than 25 years.

Martha Roberts, ACNP, CEN, is an acute care nurse practitioner for Johns Hopkins Medicine at the Sibley Memorial Hospital in Washington, DC, an adjunct faculty associate and clinical instructor of nursing at the Malek School of Health Professions, Marymount University in Arlington, VA, and is Dr. Roberts’ daughter.

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