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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.

Wednesday, September 03, 2014

As we approach the end of summer, we pay tribute to a special nerve block. This particular block is crucial for treating lower lip lacerations that may be related to slips and falls at the pool or skateboarding. We are going to ask you to go mental, as in blocking the mental nerve of the face.


The mental nerve is an extension of the inferior alveolar nerve, which branches primarily off the trigeminal nerve. It is a sensory nerve that provides sensation to the lower chin and lip. It does not supply sensory innervation to the lower teeth, although some patients report mild anesthesia to their teeth. Three branches come out of the foramen; two go to the skin of the chin and one to the lower lip.



Mental artery and nerve positions.


Head and neck regional anesthesia is useful for a variety of reasons. A single but precise nerve injection allows the practitioner to spread a large area of anesthesia to specific parts of the face for suture repair. The injured area may be delicate and sensitive, especially complicated injuries to the lip. Many facial nerve blocks are accomplished by using landmarks that are easily identifiable. Intraoral needle entry may help avoid additional trauma to the outside skin surface. A nerve block allows suture repair without distortion or swelling that can occur with local injection. Finally, the procedure itself commands straightforward knowledge of the anatomy and requires only a few simple supplies.


Supplies for mental nerve block: gloves, 3 or 5 mL syringe, 25 or 27 gauge 1½-inch needle, topical anesthetic, and bupivacaine. Photo by Martha Roberts.


Injectable Sesorcaine (bupivicaine) and topical anesthetic (Benzocaine 20%). Photo by Martha Roberts.


The Approach

·         Identification of mental nerve and other facial landmarks

·         Topical anesthesia of mucosal entry point

·         Mental nerve block

·         Suture and repair as needed


The Procedure

·         Sit the patient upright at a 45- to 90-degree angle.

·         Place side rails up on stretcher so the patient can hold onto them as you inject. Patients have a tendency to grab or swat away your hand in response to the initial injection.

·         Identify your landmarks. Have your patient look forward and draw an imaginary line from the pupil down to the lower jaw. The mental nerve is midline to the pupil.

·         Place your pointer finger in the mouth along the gum in line with the pupil. Locate the foramen of the left or right side of the mental nerve. To do this, palpate 1 cm below the base of the second premolar (tooth #20 or #29, fifth tooth from the midline) between the lip and teeth. The foramen may be very difficult to palpate.







Photo courtesy of The Clinical Practice of Emergency Medicine, Lippincott Williams & Wilkins, 2001.


·         Generously squirt or squeeze topical anesthetic of your choice onto cotton-tipped applicators and place them on your landmark(s). The applicators are placed on the mucosa at the base of the space between the teeth and lip. Leave in the patient’s mouth for three to five minutes.

·         Draw up 3-5 mLs of bupivacaine into a 3 or 5 mL syringe. Obtain 25 or 27 gauge 1½-inch needle for injection.

·         Grab the lower lip with thumb and pointer finger with non-dominant hand and pull it gently outward, as if you are holding a large mouth bass.

·         Use your dominant hand to inject. Position your needle perpendicularly to the second molar, and insert the needle. Click here to watch a video of Dr. Roberts demonstrating how to do this step-by-step.

·         Insert needle and aspirate to ensure you are not injecting into an artery.

·         Inject 3-5 mLs of bupivacaine just above the foramen and remove the needle. Use a fan-like distribution of anesthetic about 1 cm to each side of the injection to ensure good anesthesia.

·         Massage area of injection on the outside of the face to help with distribution.

·         If the patient has an injury that crosses the midline, identify both landmarks and complete steps to both sides of the face.

·         Allow 3-5 minutes for full anesthesia to take effect.

·         Complete your suture and repair as needed.



Distribution of anesthesia from mental nerve block (top). Anatomy (center). Approach and positioning of injection (bottom). Photos used with permission from Roberts JR, Hedges JR. Clinical Procedures in Emergency Medicine, 6th edition, Philadelphia: Saunders/Elsevier, 2014, pg. 551.


The Cautions

·         Remember that the full length of the needle should never be fully inserted when using an intraoral approach for any nerve block.

·         Do not change the direction of the needle while it is inserted during injection. Pull back and change position.

·         Aspiration before injection is key.

·         Minimize pain by injecting anesthesia slowly.

·         Use a topical numbing agent whenever possible to minimize pain prior to injection. This block is nearly painless with proper topical anesthesia and a slow injection.

·         Always take into consideration that any injection to the face causes anxiety for the patient. Be sure to explain to the patient your procedure before injecting so that he remains still and comfortable while you work.


Tip of the Week

Next time you head to the dentist, why not ask for some one-on-one teaching? These guys are experts when it comes to facial anatomy and nerves. Although there is some mild anesthesia provided to the first and second premolars by blocking the mental nerve, you should note this is NOT the primary procedure for actual dental work or dental blocks. Please see our blog from March 2013 for more information about the inferior alveolar nerve block. (


(NEW!) Evidence-Based Practice Pearl

A randomized, controlled, double-blind study in the Journal of Endodontics by Whitworth et al. found the speed of injection reduces the pain of injection while performing a mental nerve block. About 50 percent of the tested patient population reported anesthesia to their first molars, bicuspids, and lateral incisors. For all your statistical nerds out there, the P value was <0.001.

Wednesday, August 06, 2014
It’s summertime, and people are spending a lot of time outside in their yards, at the pool, traveling, hiking, and getting their fingers caught in things. That makes it the perfect time for a tribute to finger lacerations, specifically those with nail bed disruption and avulsion.
You will need to do a bit of handy work yourself if you work in an urgent care center that does not have a hand specialist on call 24/7. Finger lacerations can be complicated, but you simply need to keep in mind the basic principles about repair of soft tissue injuries. It is also important to identify tuft fractures and tendon disruption.
Hand injuries are incredibly common and amazingly painful. Sometimes a hand injury can keep someone out of work for several weeks, especially if the patient works in an industrial environment or in areas where he may be exposed to chemicals. Close follow-up is indicated and often times antibiotics are warranted to avoid complications because our hands and fingers are so susceptible to infection. Pediatric hand injuries are even more frustrating for parents and kids alike. We encourage you to read our previous blogs about soft tissue injuries and brush up on the basics. (
Finger laceration with nail bed disruption. The proximal base of the nail is totally avulsed (left) and overlying the eponychial fold. The avulsed nail should be replaced anatomically but left attached to the intact nail bed. Credit: Martha Roberts
The Approach
 Ring removal
 Digital block
 Radiographs
 Relocation of digit if necessary (see previous blog:
 Wound care: clean, debride conservatively, nail removal or repair, and suture repair
 Nail replacement
 Bandage and splint
The Procedure: Initial treatment First take off that ring!
You will need to use a ring cutter if ring removal is not possible. Substantial swelling will occur with the injury itself and with digital block.
 Order appropriate radiographs of the finger, not just the hand, after examining the patient. Appropriate views include the AP, lateral, and oblique. Lateral views of the finger allow the provider to see subtle dislocations and avulsion fractures. A tuft is the most common fracture.
 Have the patient on a stretcher in a comfortable position. The patient most likely to syncopize during treatment is a young man in his 20s and 30s (proven by our own research). Digital blocks are routinely necessary for this type of injury. Note: Skin repairs are done after the dislocation is reduced.
 Clean the area with saline or tap water. A recent multicenter comparison of tap water versus sterile saline for wound irrigation in more than 600 patients found that both irrigants had equivalent rates of wound infection. (Acad Emerg Med 2007;14[5]:404.)
    Use a betadine solution or other antiseptic to clean the area.
 Do not soak for long periods of time. Five minutes is sufficient.
Nail Removal and Replacement
 Remove the nail from the nail bed completely if the nail bed requires sutures. Place small scissors between the nail and nail bed and spread/advance them, being careful not to cut the nail bed. Save the nail; it will be replaced after the repair. You may use a piece of the suture packet cut in the shape of the nail instead if the nail is not reusable or missing.
 Place a hole for drainage in the middle of the removed nail.
 Leave the nail in place if it is adhered to the eponychial space. But you must repair it if the nail can be lifted off and a laceration is underneath. Remove the distal pieces if the nail is shattered into pieces, but keep as much of the original nail left intact to the eponychial space as possible.
 Extensively clean the area under the nail, removing any debris or foreign bodies. Do not injure the intact nail bed.
 Use a 6.0 or 7.0 absorbable suture for nail bed laceration repair. Remember that the new nail will grow over the repaired nail bed, and it should be flat and well aligned to prevent permanent nail deformities. Complete lateral nail lacerations first. (Roberts JR, Hedges JR, Clinical Procedures in Emergency Medicine, 6th edition, Philadelphia: Saunders/Elsevier, 2014.) A finger tourniquet should be routine, but don’t forget to remove them.
 Replace the nail in its original position once lacerations are repaired. Use a 4.0 removable suture to secure the nail back into the eponychium using four to six sutures, depending on the size of nail.
 The nail is replaced not only to act as a protective agent during the healing process, but also to facilitate growth of new nail by maintaining the fold. This helps prevent nail splitting or deformities. Note: Nail growth occurs at a rate of 0.1 mm/day, and it takes about six months for full regeneration of the nail. (Roberts & Hedges, 2014.)
Replaced nail to eponychial space with applied sutures to stabilize it.
Credit: James R. Roberts, MD
Wound Care and Splinting
 Apply a bulky dressing with a finger splint for simple DIP injuries.
 Splints will be kept on for two to three weeks or longer depending on fracture or severity.
 Larger areas of injury may need full volar or dorsal splints. (See below.)
Discharge Considerations and Other Essentials
 Tuft fractures are open fractures, but routine antibiotic use is controversial, and infection rates are actually low. Suggested antibiotics to consider: First-generation cephalosporin such as cephalexin 500 mg qid for five to seven days or antistaphylococcal penicillin such as dicloxacillin 500 mg PO qid five to seven days. PCN allergy? Consider clindamycin 300 mg PO qid for five to seven days. Warn patients about diarrhea and upset stomach. Diabetic patients may need extended day coverage.
 Wound care is mandatory. The patient should not remove or get the dressing wet for the first 24 hours. Then, dressing changes can be completed once a day or as needed. Pain medication should be taken prior to dressing changes.
 Follow-up should be within three to five days.
 Pain medication should be given to the patient because digital blocks wear off quickly.
 Sutures of the replaced nail are removed in seven to 10 days if the patient is followed in the ED. A totally avulsed nail, if replaced, may grow normally, but a new nail will push out the repaired nail. The old nail can be removed in two to three weeks once the eponychial fold has new nail growth. The nail bed may be uncovered for a few weeks if the replaced nail is removed, but this area dries and become less sensitive. It is important to keep this nail bed clean as the new nail grows over it.
This patient did not suffer any tendon involvement, but it is important to examine the patient for tendon injuries and follow up with a specialist. Patients often need to be taken to the operating room for exploration and repair if they have complicated injuries. Consult your hand specialist if you suspect tendon involvement.
 Use a thumb spica splint for flexor or extensor tendon injury to the thumb.
 Immobilize the entire hand and wrist using a dorsal splint for flexor tendon injury to the finger.
 Use a volar splint from forearm to fingertips for extensor tendon injury to a finger. Note: A patient may have an ulnar injury, not a tendon injury, if he cannot extend the PIP and DIP joints of all fingers (but does not have lacerations to each finger). (Semers NB, Practical Plastic Surgery for Nonsurgeons, 2nd edition, New York: Author’s Choice Press, 2007.)
Tip of the Week
As you may already know, some antibiotics such as cephalosporins and penicillin can increase the rate of bleeding by increasing the INR in patients who are on warfarin. It is important to take a full history, and ask patients about their medications, no matter their presenting problem.
Go Green
Have you ever noticed a piece of hospital tape stuck to your shoe, and then found it just wouldn’t budge when you tried to remove it? And one week later, it’s still there? Leftover hospital tape is great for all kinds of home projects! It’s strong, durable, and sticky. It’s good for patching things, painting projects, and can be used at the base of your door to prevent drafts. You can use it to fix a shoe, too. Offer it to your patient first, but if you were going to toss the extra tape, save it for a project and reuse it!
Dr. Roberts is the chairman of emergency medicine and the director of the division of toxicology at Mercy Catholic Medical Center, and a professor of emergency medicine and toxicology 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. Ms. Roberts is an acute care nurse practitioner at Inova Fairfax Hospital Emergency Department in Falls Church, VA. Read their blog, The Procedural Pause, at

Wednesday, June 11, 2014
This is what you signed up for, right? A career where you are a multitasking, highly-skilled medical practitioner in a fast-paced emergency department. This place is predictably unpredictable, but you are saving lives, and it feels good! The problem is, you cannot help feeling unappreciated, underpaid, overwhelmed, and exhausted. You are finally living the dream, but the dream consists of working weekends, double-call, and every other holiday. You miss lunch while still gaining a few pounds. You gain incredible insight into a very broken care system. Feeling more like a nightmare? It’s certainly not what you expected.
Now you have to deal with demanding patients who expect customer service perks. The patients who say, “Do more tests,” and insist on instant gratification. The audacity! You are frustrated that your clientele is telling you how to do your job. The degree behind your name means nothing because Google has allowed your patient to complete a self-diagnosis. This place is for emergencies, not primary care. These complaints are not emergent at all.
You feel justified by your disdain because you are not alone. Your colleagues exchange glances when a patient demands a head CT, or you hear a deep sigh from a co-worker when a patient asks for a stat MRI for back pain he has had for eight years. The nurses agree that your narcotic-seeking patient is simply that, and needs security to escort him out. Mr. Jones is back again for a refill of his blood pressure medication. Now you see one more person just signed in with a stubbed toe.
This is not what you signed up for at all. Breathe. Stop for a minute and regroup. Now, slap yourself. Maybe you need to slap yourself twice. This is what you signed up for! The ED is not just for emergent concerns. It is a care center where people know there are doctors and nurses. It is not just for emergencies like strokes, MIs, and blunt trauma! It is for patient care, in general, and their satisfaction. Until you realize patient satisfaction is part of the care plan, then you are going to continue to live a miserable existence in your department. Let us explain.
Back when organized medicine was — wait a second — has it ever been organized? No. Never. There are buildings with roofs, medications, tools, and machines that help you make decisions, but it’s not exactly organized. The ED is full of chaos. What about resources — or lack thereof? Your local resources exist, but most of the time they are almost impossible to utilize. Now, add the following fun facts: Your patient may not be able to read or write or speak English. He might be elderly or broke. When these types of patients ask you for a helping hand, why do you act so annoyed? We all know your badge doesn’t say S. Smith, Waiter. It doesn’t say J. Jerk, either.
Your badge says Emergency Physician or Nurse or Physician Assistant or Nurse Practitioner. This role is more than knowing how to diagnose and treat heart failure or catch early sepsis. This role is about providing total patient care and making people feel better, even the ones who don’t quite get it. It is about making people happy and motivated to play an active role in their own health care. After all, a happy patient trusts you, and isn’t that what this is all about?
Recent personal opinion columns scold and mock our demanding patients and hospitals that stress concern about patient satisfaction scores. Most of these rants reiterate the same themes about non-emergent patients demanding non-emergent testing or treatment. Many ED providers complain that patients don’t understand our overwhelming jobs, and visit us with complaints that should be seen somewhere else. Well, the ED is that somewhere else.
Providers whine that nonsensical satisfaction scores should not be part of our job evaluation. The patient’s opinion should not be a factor or used as an evaluation tool. Nonurgent patients should understand we are busy with other emergencies, and they need to wait. This may be true, but we don’t need to broadcast to them that maybe they are not as important. We also don’t get to say their patient satisfaction scores simply don’t matter, that only the admissions’ and critical patients’ scores are read.
It’s controversial. Patient satisfaction, however, is important in the ED and so are the scores — to an extent. What people think about your care should matter to you and your facility. It should be measured and monitored. You should want to change your practice based on negative feedback.
Also important are refills, toe pain, dental pain, and well checkups. The ED is not just for emergencies, and it will always be that way. It doesn’t matter what a patient’s needs are; you must provide aid. The challenge is not the difficult intubation or rushing a stroke patient to the CT scanner within the window. Those steps are easy for you because they define your job. The real challenge is to accept that the ED will never be what you want it to be or operate the way you see fit.
It is also a challenge of your character. Patients are going to remember you, and their opinion matters regardless of who they are and what their complaint is. Their opinion should also matter to you because this also defines your job. This should not be seen as a chore but as a job that you want to master. You may yearn to explain to people what constitutes a true emergency. In the end, though, whatever brought them to the ED is an emergency to them, and they need your help. Your definition doesn’t matter.
As ED providers, we prioritize. Most days, we make a difference and people appreciate our efforts. Other days, we see demanding patients who are not as privileged with our educated minds or who do not have the financial solution to their health care needs. We must accept that the ED is a mixing bowl of complicated cases and part of our job is to find a recipe that works for each patient. The ED is a place for compassion and creativeness, not for complaining, personal bias, or judgment.
No, we do not have to prescribe antibiotics for every cough or runny nose to boost our scores. Not every patient gets a CT or an x-ray just because he asks for it. Providers seem so annoyed by the requests. Find a middle ground with alternative options if you can. Considering patient satisfaction as a goal is not giving in to Press Ganey. It is important to reexamine how you practice and how you treat people, even the incredibly ill-advised ones. As providers, we are still allowed to exercise our clinical judgment to make a decision about patient care and not get irritated at patients when they ask for or demand things. Do not lose sight of creating a relationship through communication, trust, and ultimately, kind rapport. Don’t fall into the I’m-the-provider-and-I-know-best mentality. We can explain our thought process to patients and reassure them about our decisions whether to do testing.
Our jobs as ED providers include saving lives, but they also include considering patient satisfaction. These scores should not be exempt just because we make life-or-death decisions. Our profession should be respected and some patients need to wait, but being callous is never justified. Maybe we can look past the initial insults of certain patient complaints and find a deeper meaning. Not all of the scores are accurate or reflect the total picture of who we are as providers. No one is perfect, and we should accept that there is always room for growth and change.
We have a privileged job, but it does not mean we are allowed to be pompous. Patient satisfaction, courtesy callbacks, answering questions, and going the extra mile not only make a difference to our patients, they define our role as care providers. Rolling our eyes at our regulars will not make them stop coming. The next time you feel yourself wanting to say, “That is not my job in the ED,” think again. It is your job, and it is going to keep being your job. Consider patient feedback realistically. Treat everyone with compassion and courtesy, and I guarantee the rewards will not be what you expected.
How important is patient feedback to you?

Tuesday, May 06, 2014
Olecranon bursitis, also called baker’s or Popeye elbow, can be a painless or an irritating condition involving the bursa located near the proximal end of the ulna in the elbow over the olecranon. Normal bursae sacs generally are filled with a small amount of fluid, which helps the joint remain mobile. The sac can swell under the soft tissue from overuse or when the area sustains an injury from a bump or fall.
Normal bursae are usually small, but they can grow to be quite large, swollen, and occasionally even infected when they become irritated or inflamed. The swelling is obvious because the space in this area is limited, and drainage of the fluid may be necessary. Physical examination of patients with uninfected olecranon bursitis demonstrates an annoying but supple lump on the posterior elbow; it is unsightly yet only minimally symptomatic. It may have even gone away by itself in the past. Infected bursae usually reveal a warm, red, quite tender, and painful bulge over the elbow with limited range of motion. Patients feel most comfortable in the flexed position and have difficulty extending their elbow because of the pain and swelling.
Most aseptic/sterile swellings are merely cosmetic and not especially bothersome. Many come from resting the elbow on a bar while drinking. Recurrences are common after simple drainage. Very red, hot, and painful bursae enlargement usually means gout or an infected bursa. Infected bursa must be drained and treated with antibiotics, and a cure is not always easy. Infected bursae demonstrate less floppy swelling and more diffuse redness and tenderness.

External soft tissue view of the left elbow. (Photo by Martha Roberts)

This patient had nonseptic olecranon bursitis. (Photo by Martha Roberts)
The Approach to Nonseptic Bursal Swelling
• Radiographic evaluation of injury (only if concern for underlying bony injury)
• Bursal needle aspiration using ultrasound
• Specimen sampling, WBC, gram stain, and cell count to help determine if infected
• ACE wrap plus sling if needed; pain control
• Orthopedic follow-up
Radiographic views of the left elbow. The left lateral elbow shows moderate soft tissue swelling over the olecranon without bony injury, left. The left AP view of the elbow shows that the IV line was inappropriately placed in the affected arm. (Photos by Martha Roberts)
The Procedure
• Premedicate patients who may require analgesia.
• Place the patient in a position of comfort with the affected elbow within your arm’s reach. Effective positions include allowing the patient to give himself a hug by placing the arm across his chest or having him lie on his unaffected side with his elbow propped over a large drape.
• Place your US probe over the affected area and assess for the highest area of fluid collection. Mentally note this area using landmarks, and remove the probe once located.
• Apply antiseptic to the site. Apply sterile gloves.
• Inject 1-2 mls of 1% lidocaine using a prefilled 25g needle to anesthetize the affected area.

Properly positioning your patient is key to a successful procedure. (Photo by Martha Roberts)
Ultrasound showing large fluid-filled bursa sac over olecranon.
Gauze, aseptic cleaner, injection needle, and lidocaine. (Photo by Martha Roberts)
Lidocaine with epinephrine may be used. (Photo by Martha Roberts)
Identified injection site determined by guided US. (Photo by Martha Roberts)
• Remove the 25g needle, and wait one to two minutes.
• Insert 18g needle attached to 10 mL syringe to same entrance site, and begin draining the fluid from the bursa sac. Use a sterile technique. Consider using sterile US probe covers.
• It may be necessary to “milk” the area of fluid to help drain the site as you pull back on the syringe.
• Remove the 18g needle once aspiration is complete, and apply a BandAid or dressing.
• Send a specimen of the fluid to the lab with appropriate orders.
• Apply an ACE wrap over the site for compression, and offer the patient a sling for added support.
• Remind patients to do shoulder exercises if a sling is applied to avoid frozen shoulder complications. Do not splint the extremity.
• Arrange orthopedic follow-up within 24 to 72 hours and strict return precautions.
• NSAIDs are the treatment of choice for pain and decreased swelling. Oral steroids are not indicated.
Approximately 5 mLs of clear, yellow fluid were removed from the bursa. No blood or pus was noted. Results were properly labeled and sent to the lab. Occasionally this sterile fluid is blood-tinged. (Photo by Martha Roberts)

Septic bursitis usually results from a traumatic bony injury, and a wound or cellulitis will most likely be associated. Literature review reflects that more than 70 percent of septic arthritis cases are related to traumatic injury. (Roberts & Hedges. Clinical Procedures in Emergency Medicine, 6th edition, Philadelphia: Saunders/Elsevier, 2014.) Consider your high-risk populations to be those who are immunocompromised, diabetic, alcoholic (chronic injury or fall), or have jobs that may involve crawling on elbows or forearms.
Pus or cloudy discharge will be present on bursal aspiration, and is used to make a bedside diagnosis. Cell count may be more than 200,000 per mL. Gram stains may be negative about 30 to 50 percent of the time, even with septic bursitis. Cultures may reveal Staphylococcus aureus (80%) or streptococcal organisms; gram-negative cultures are rarely seen. (West J Med 1988;149(5):607.)
Septic bursitis does not always present with a fever. (Roberts & Hedges, 2014.) Treatment of septic bursitis for successful outpatient therapy (not diabetic or immunocompromised) includes clindamycin 450 mg PO three times a day for one week or Bactrim 2 DS tabs PO twice a day for one week. IV antibiotics such as vancomycin, clindamycin, and linezolid are given for severe cases during inpatient management. Remember, low WBC count and negative gram stain do not rule out infection. (Levine B. EMRA Antibiotics Guide. Emergency Medicine Residents’ Association, Irving, TX: 2012.)
Nonseptic bursitis may result from a gouty attack or arthritic flair. Drainage will be yellow-tinged or straw-colored but clear. It may also be slightly blood-tinged, and may have an erythrocyte count of 20,000-30,000 per mL. The leukocyte count may be 10,000-20,000 per mL, but is rarely high. Crystals may be seen and give rise to suspicion of gout. Overall, the cell count will be less than 6,000 per mL for nonseptic bursitis. (McAffe & Smith, 1988.)
• Is your patient on blood thinners? You can still drain the bursa carefully. But make sure he is not taking over-the-counter medications that could be an issue if he is also taking Coumadin, ASA, or Plavix. Glucosamine sulfate, a popular but controversial supplement for treating osteoarthritis or inflammation, may be something the patient uses. You may want to advise him to avoid vitamin C and Omega 3s as well.
• If patients are looking for an “organic” treatment, suggest acupuncture, physical therapy, or massage. Always suggest orthopedic follow-up, however, as primary advice.
• What is the bigger picture? Olecranon bursitis may be caused from a lupus flair or uremia. Be sure the patient has proper follow-up. It doesn’t hurt to consider warning signs of other systemic diseases besides gout or arthritis.
• IV placement: Do not place intravenous lines in the affected arm if at all possible. As noted in the image above, the nurse placed a line in the arm with the known injury. The patient needed pain medication during the procedure, and it was difficult to administer because of positioning. Discuss this with your team if you are ordering labs or need IV access.
• Bursal aspiration: We all know your first thought may be to get rid of that sharp quickly! Don’t forget, however, that you need to send what you drain to the lab! Be careful with your fluid-filled syringe after you drain the bursa pocket. Do not recap the needle. Instead, immediately transfer the specimen to your sample containers and send it to the lab.
• Are you cleaning your ultrasound machine appropriately? This is as important as doing the procedure itself because we can’t do our jobs effectively without the right equipment. Be careful what you use to clean the machine because heavy cleaners or abrasive pads such as CaviWipes may cause irreversible damage. Remove gel from the transducer immediately after use with soft gauze. Refer to your specific model’s requirements for appropriate cleaning guidelines, but keep in mind a neutral pH is best.
Tip of the Week
Our friend Eugene Lee, MD, at Inova Fairfax Hospital ED reminds us that an open dialog with our orthopedic team is important and necessary. Previous treatments of bursitis should always be taken into consideration; chronic olecranon bursitis needs close follow-up. The orthopedic team should be consulted if you are at all considering injecting steroids into any bursa, especially if the bursa was recently or previously drained or a septic joint is suspected. Ruling out septic bursitis is imperative before injecting steroids into any bursa.
Some studies say, however, that 20 mg intrabursal injections of methylprednisolone acetate may be an effective treatment regimen for nonseptic olecranon bursitis. (Arch Intern Med 1989;149[11]:2527.) Please take into consideration, however, that the literature review of these data is limited because of sample and study size as well as inconsistent results. More information on this topic is welcome, and we encourage your comments!

Wednesday, April 02, 2014
The Approach: How to Help Heal
We promised you some information about soft tissue injuries, and you’ve got to hand it to us: we delivered! Last month, we discussed incision and drainage of large burns to the hand. Review it here before reading further: This month, we want to take an in-depth look at wound care management for burns and highlight other pearls needed for top-notch healing.
You should try to follow a few simple rules when it comes to treating burn patients. Soft tissue skin injuries heal in stages and are dependent on direct and correct treatment of the area, nutrition, and hydration. Most providers fail to mention the benefits of protein and fluid intake to burn patients, especially if they are minor injuries. Nutrition and hydration play a major role in the healing process along with keeping the area clean, dry, and properly bandaged.
Be sure to familiarize yourself with the proper essential wound care materials: What is Kerlix? When do I use Xeroform? What type of splint is best? Know where things are in your emergency department stockroom. Actively involve and engage your patient in managing his burn care during your first application of the bandage. Print proper written instructions reiterating the information with phone numbers for local burn centers and specialists. Provide pain management, and take time to answer the “dumb question.” Infected burns are painful and can be debilitating, not to mention that patients are worried about the cosmetic appearance. Complications can be avoided if you spend the time talking to your patient about how to treat his injury properly.
The Procedure: Assessing the Damage and Treatment Essentials
Our previous hand injury is a great example of a volar hand burn that needs a bulky dressing and splint.
Other injuries include dorsum burns, treated in similar fashion with full debridement.

How to treat the blister is always a question for all burns. Preserve the skin and use it as a protective barrier for the first 24-48 hours for volar hand burns. After that, however, the wound requires debridement, and all dead skin has to be removed by our favorite local artist, the hand surgeon. The burn to the dorsum of the hand was debrided on the initial visit and treated in a similar fashion, with close follow-up. Here is a step-by-step approach on how to apply the proper dressing for this type of burn, which can be modified for any extremity burn depending on the affected area. Examples of burn dressings:

  • Provide necessary tetanus vaccination or booster.
  • Ensure that the patient has been adequately medicated for pain.
  • Provide a layer of gauze padding to the debrided sites when applying your bulky dressing. It’s key to have the gauze draw fluid away from the burned surface during healing.
  • Cover all affected areas with liberal but even amounts of your chosen barrier and healing cream (sulfadiazine/Silvadene for larger burns, bacitracin for smaller ones, etc.). Some apply an Adaptic pad or Xeroform to the affected areas before using gauze. Wet gauze sticks when the dressing is changed; this can also help with secondary debridement.
  • Note: Separate all fingers with gauze pads (A). This was not done in figure D, and skin maceration of normal skin occurred.
  • Tell the patient to make his first dressing change in 24-48 hours.
  • Start applying bulky dressing wrap. Do not apply a splint directly to the injured area without a bulky dressing barrier!
  • Apply a volar splint (for this burn because it is a palmar burn) or thumb-spica-like splint to accommodate injury. Be sure to have it in a dependent position where fingers are able to move freely if at all possible. The splint serves as a protective garment and skin stabilizer as healing occurs over the next seven to 21 days.
Discharge Paperwork Considerations
Provide your patient with written instructions for dressing changes at home:
1. Time your dressing change for half an hour after taking your pain medication.
2. You may need someone to help with your dressing changes.
3. Prepare all materials before you get started.
4. Remove all parts of the old dressing and remove or wash off the prior cream that was applied with liquid soap like Dove or Dial.
5. Inspect the area. Is it infected? Look for redness, swelling, warmth, and streaking. Some dislocation and discharge may be normal. Excessive amounts of either are not normal.
6. Perform range-of-motion exercises in the same ways you would use your hand, foot, finger, etc.
7. “Fluff up” your gauze by pulling at it slightly and stretching it before applying.
8. Apply the new ointment or cream with a sterile tongue blade or piece of gauze.
9. Apply “fluffed up” gauze. Do this in a bulky dressing style, as shown to you in the emergency department.
10. If you have a splint, apply it after.
11. Wound care is done daily.
(This list was adapted from “How to Change a Burn Dressing at Home: Patient Instructions” from Roberts & Hedges, Clinical Procedures in Emergency Medicine, 6th edition, Philadelphia: Saunders/Elsevier, 2014.)
Cautions: Focus on Nutrition and Hydration
The past few decades of intense burn research prove that wound care, nutrition, and hydration are the keys to successful healing regardless of burn size or shape. The Journal of Parenteral and Enteral Nutrition knows a thing or two about nutrition and metabolic support. Evidence-based results for burn care support good nutrition, even for minor burns. A noted improved clinical status and decreased healing times are seen with low-fat nutrition in all types of burn patients. Low-fat nutrition, for example, decreases rates of infection and shortens overall healing times. Fish oil did not show any added clinical benefit. Overall, monitored nutrition during healing times for patients with burns can help modulate cortisol binding globulin and free circulating cortisol after severe stress. (J Parenter Enteral Nutr 1995;19[6]:482.)
A study in the British Journal of Nursing said disregarding nutritional status for burn patients may compromise healing times or prolong the stages of wound healing. Fatty acids are essential for cell structure, and play an active role in the inflammatory process. Increased levels of protein are necessary for collagen formation when the body is attempting to heal, and this also helps prevent wound dehiscence. Some studies show vitamin C also plays a role in the healing process, and it could be an added supplement. Vitamin C deficiencies can also contribute to fragile granulation tissue. Finally, some evidence suggests that low albumin and body mass index (BMI), adequate rest, and even some holistic approaches are essential for healing. (Brit J Nurs 2001;10:[1]:S42.)
Finally, it is well known and accepted that fluid replacement, even for minor burns, is essential to wound healing. Several approaches help determine the needed amounts of fluid resuscitation for burn patients. These rules do not apply just for inpatient admissions. Hospitalization should be considered if you are thinking of aggressive fluid resuscitation management for a patient. The Rule of 9s and the Parkland formula are good standards to review and practice when you are concerned about a burn patient.
Do not forget to tell patients with minor burns to increase fluid intake and avoid dehydration. This should be standard practice for all your burn patients. Encourage a balanced, high-caloric diet free from saturated fats and with increased protein intake over the next 48-72 hours. Also discourage high sodium and sugar intake for the next week. As noted, multivitamin supplementation is still debatable for many ailments, but vitamin C is an organic and inexpensive holistic approach. Be sure to note that aloe and honey are acceptable and affordable forms of topical healing agents, but manufactured creams like Silvadene and bacitracin are still the go-to topical treatments.
Tip of the Week
Having a hard time getting the gauze to wrap around the thumb? Cut a hole in the middle of the gauze wrap, and let it slide over the thumb just like the way you would put a T-shirt on over your head. The gauze remains uninterrupted, and you can continue to wrap the extremity. This will help keep the dressing in place, and doesn’t allow the gauze to roll up over the thumb and expose open skin that could let in bacterial intruders that could cause infection.
Go Green
You opened a pack of sterile gauze, and only used one piece. Your instinct is to just throw away the rest because the patient is leaving and doesn’t need any more gauze for his wound care. Send the extra home with the patient! He can use the nonsterile part on the outer surface of the bulky dressing.
About the Author

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

James R. Roberts, MD, is the chairman of emergency medicine and the director of the division of toxicology at Mercy Catholic Medical Center, and a professor of emergency medicine and toxicology 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 at Inova Fairfax Hospital Emergency Department in Falls Church, VA, and is Dr. Roberts’ daughter.

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