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Original Papers

Predicting gastric contents following trauma: an evaluation of current practice

Hardman, J. G.; O'Connor, P. J.

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European Journal of Anaesthesiology: June 1999 - Volume 16 - Issue 6 - p 404-409



It is well recognised that regurgitation and aspiration of gastric contents during anaesthesia causes morbidity and mortality [1]. Risk of this is increased by a large gastric volume and by low gastric pH [2]. Trauma is thought to delay gastric emptying [3], further complicating identification of patients who require additional methods to prevent aspiration during general anaesthesia. Several techniques have been recommended to reduce the risk of regurgitation and aspiration during anaesthesia, e.g. provoking vomiting with apomorphine [4], induction of anaesthesia in the foot-down position [5], cricoid pressure [6] and rapid induction of anaesthesia [7]. These techniques have various disadvantages including increased risk of awareness, side effects of the necessary drugs and patient discomfort. These techniques are therefore avoided in those patients who are considered not to be at risk of aspiration. The aim of this study was to compare the current practice of anaesthetists in predicting 'gastric safety' with the available evidence.


Anaesthetists in Nottingham, Mansfield, Lincoln, Derby and Sheffield hospitals (in the Trent region of England) were surveyed by postal questionnaire. The questionnaire was developed following a local pilot study and is provided in the appendix. Anaesthetists were asked to rate (on a 0-5 scale) the reliability of the criteria given in the appendix for identifying those patients at-risk of pulmonary aspiration of gastric contents following trauma. They were also asked to state whether they currently used each criterion during their clinical practice. Data were examined as 'all grades' and separately as junior trainees (senior house officers), specialist trainees (specialist registrars and senior registrars) and specialists (consultants). Each criterion was expressed as the proportion of anaesthetists using it and as the median score for 'reliability' allocated to it. Data recording and analyses were performed using Microsoft® Excel (version: Office 97).


Two hundred and forty-seven postal questionnaires were sent out and 196 completed replies were received, giving a 79% response rate. Presence or absence of bowel sounds was the least used and lowest rated criterion (median score 0; used by 7%). Interval of eating to injury was the most used and highest rated criterion (median score 4; used by 88%). The use of opioids was the next most frequently used criterion (median score 3; used by 75%), and nausea, pain and vomiting were all highly rated. Specialists (consultants) used most criteria less frequently than trainees and rated most criteria lower. Junior trainees [SHO (senior house officer) grade] rated most criteria higher and used most criteria more frequently than senior trainees [SpR (specialist registrar and SR (senior registrar) grades]. Data for each criterion are given in Table 1.

Table 1
Table 1:
Ratings of the criteria and usage of each. Scores are median values and are given on a 0-5 scale where a score of 5 indicates maximum reliability and a score of 0 indicates that the responder feels the criterion is completely unreliable. Usage of each criterion ('Used by') is expressed as a percentage of responders in each group


The results of the survey suggest that most criteria are considered to be valuable in identifying patients at risk of aspiration following trauma. Only the presence or absence of hunger or bowel sounds were perceived as not useful. Most anaesthetists identified the interval from eating to injury as the most useful criterion and this was widely used by all grades of anaesthetist, implying that precautions are taken if this period is considered inadequate.

Factors predisposing to the regurgitation of gastric contents include lower oesophageal sphincter dysfunction and delayed emptying of stomach contents [8,9]. Pulmonary aspiration of gastric contents was first reported as a complication of general anaesthesia in 1848, but Mendelson is credited with describing the pathophysiology of the acid aspiration syndrome nearly 100 years later [10]. Attempts have been made to define the volume and composition of fluid necessary to produce severe or fatal aspiration pneumonia. In 1974, Roberts and Shiley, studying acid aspiration during Caesarean section, suggested that the at-risk patient had a gastric pH of less than 2.5 and volume greater than 0.4 mL kg−1[11]. These data, although derived from unpublished work in rhesus monkeys, rapidly gained widespread acceptance. However, more recent animal studies suggest that approximately 0.8 mL kg−1 instilled directly into the trachea is necessary to reproduce aspiration pneumonitis [12], and Schreiner, in a recent editorial, proposed that gastric fluid volume may be a poor surrogate for assessing risk of aspiration pneumonitis [13].

Although pulmonary aspiration of gastric contents is a rare event, it is one of the commonest causes of death related to anaesthesia [14]. Estimates of the incidence of aspiration pneumonitis range from one to six per 10 000 anaesthetics with a mortality of 5% [15-19]. It is therefore difficult to experimentally identify factors that increase the incidence of aspiration. Most researchers investigating the risk of aspiration have examined the volume and pH of the stomach contents at induction of anaesthesia. Three studies of children who had suffered trauma demonstrated gastric volumes greater than 0.4 mL kg−1 and a pH less than 2.5 at induction of anaesthesia in 33-62% of patients and concluded that all children are at significant risk of aspiration following trauma [20-22]. However, the presence of adequate gastric contents to produce aspiration pneumonitis does not necessarily imply that there is a significant risk of aspiration. Using gastric intubation, which underestimates the volume of gastric contents [23], several studies have demonstrated that the stomach contents of a significant proportion of patients presenting electively exceed these critical values [24-27], implying that patients presenting for elective surgery are at significant risk of aspiration pneumonitis. In view of the rarity of the problem, this is not the case [13]. The identification of gastric contents greater than 0.4 mL kg−1 with a pH less than 2.5 lacks the specificity to identify patients at risk of sustaining pulmonary injury due to aspiration of gastric contents. Other factors such as the protective role of the lower oesophageal sphincter are also important in the prevention of this complication. Plourde et al. determined that the gastric volume needed to produce regurgitation in cats was at least 20 times greater than the volume required to produce pulmonary damage by direct instillation into the trachea [28].

Another approach to quantifying the risk of pulmonary aspiration is measurement of the rate of gastric emptying. This can be performed using several different techniques, e.g. radiological methods, scintigraphy, ultrasound and epigastric electrical impedance techniques although most of these techniques are unsuitable for use in patients awaiting surgery [29]. Paracetamol absorption is a simple non-invasive test that relies upon the minimal absorption of paracetamol from the stomach [30]. It has been used in several studies of gastric emptying in relation to anaesthesia [31-33].

The evidence supporting the use of the criteria listed in Table 1 is discussed below:

Intervals of ingestion to injury to surgery

It seems likely that trauma causes some slowing or retardation of gastric emptying [34] but the evidence is conflicting. The survey showed a strong reliance by anaesthetists on the predictive accuracy of the interval from ingestion to injury. In the study by Bricker et al., 62% of children had a gastric aspirate greater than 0.4 mL kg−1 and they therefore concluded that following trauma all children potentially have a 'full' and 'at-risk' stomach [20]. Because similar volumes are found in the stomachs of patients presenting for elective surgery, the significance of these findings is questionable. Using paracetamol absorption, Steedman et al. found no delay in gastric emptying in patients presenting within 4 h of a Colles' fracture compared with repeat testing at the patients' first outpatient appointment [35]. In a small study using paracetamol absorption, Power et al. found a trend towards delayed emptying in recently head-injured patients [36], although they failed to find statistically significant changes. It appears that trauma does not invariably increase the volume of gastric contents nor increase the likelihood of aspiration.

Ingestion of food slows gastric emptying with solids being emptied significantly slower than fluids [37]. The volume, pH, temperature and osmotic pressure of the ingested solution all influence the rate of emptying [29]. It may be that the type of solid or fluid ingested thus has some bearing upon the likely volume of gastric contents at the time of operation.

Presence of pain or distress

The effect of pain on gastrointestinal function is difficult to quantify as the perception of pain varies considerably between individuals. Ischaemic pain in healthy volunteers delayed gastric emptying of semisolids measured using a scintigraphic technique [38] and Zaricznyj et al. found that gastric emptying was retarded by the development of severe pain, swelling and shock in dogs with forelimb fractures [39]. However, intermittent immersion of the feet in iced water did not influence the absorption of paracetamol in healthy volunteers [40]. Additionally Marsh, Spencer and Nimmo, using paracetamol absorption, found normal gastric emptying in patients with moderately severe pain [31]. Similar contradictions can be found with the presence of emotional stress and anxiety. Lydon et al. found that gastric emptying was not delayed by anxiety [33] in contrast to Simpson and Stakes who reported that gastric emptying was delayed in patients with a low anxiety trait who developed a high anxiety state before surgery [41]. Bricker et al.[20] and Olsson and Hallen [22] noted that the volume of gastric aspirates following injury was related to the severity of trauma. Therefore, it appears that distress is associated with increased risk, although objective assessment may be difficult.

Administration of opioids

The effect of opioids on gastric emptying is well documented [42]. Gastric emptying may be prevented for 2 h after an intramuscular (i.m.) dose of diamorphine and this effect is reversed by naloxone [43]. Opioids are also known to reduce lower oesophageal sphincter tone, potentially increasing the likelihood of regurgitation [44]. The use of opioids following trauma is potentially useful in identifying which patients are at risk of regurgitation. Alcohol is frequently associated with trauma and is thought to retard gastric emptying [29]. However, in humans there is much anecdotal evidence with little experimental evidence. It has been suggested that wine and beer delay gastric emptying, while whiskey and brandy promote it [45].

Presence of bowel sounds and the presence of hunger

The survey showed that hunger and bowel sounds were not considered useful criteria and indeed the presence of hunger does not necessarily imply that the stomach is empty of solids. This is therefore an unreliable sign for predicting gastric safety although hunger may imply the absence of severe pain or anxiety. Bricker et al. commented that hunger appeared related to low gastric volume however, the experimental sample was small and a statistically significant difference was not found [20].

Presence of nausea and of vomiting

No evidence exists to support or deny the predictive capacity of these criteria, although the presence of vomiting implies some residual gastric volume and may prompt the assumption of ongoing risk of aspiration of gastric contents.

Presence of a nasogastric tube

A nasogastric tube may interfere with the integrity of the gastro-oesophageal sphincter, but is presence may also allow the stomach to be emptied of its liquid contents. No evidence currently supports or denies the presence of a gastric tube as a predictive factor for 'gastric safety'.

Other factors

Pathological causes of delayed gastric emptying include gastrointestinal disease, ketoacidosis, hypocalcaemia and electrolyte imbalance [29]. Studies looking at the effects of age, sex and body weight on gastric emptying have been inconsistent and although these factors may affect the pharmacokinetics of orally administered drugs it is unlikely that they influence gastric contents [23]. Another physiological factor found to affect gastric emptying is posture, with delayed emptying occurring in the supine or left lateral position [46] and trauma may be associated with immobility in a position not conducive to gastric emptying.

In summary, the currently available evidence does not suggest that trauma per se delays gastric emptying or increases the risk of aspiration. However, factors associated with trauma such as distress, opioids, alcohol, and severe pain may delay gastric emptying or affect lower oesophageal sphincter tone and may thus predispose to regurgitation and pulmonary aspiration. Current practice in predicting the 'at-risk' stomach following trauma seems to include these factors and is evidence-based. However, the popular use of several criteria lacks the support of scientific evidence. The presence of the traditional 'at-risk' volumes of acidic gastric aspirate (0.4 mL kg−1 and pH less than 2.5) at induction of anaesthesia are of limited predictive value in identifying patients at risk of aspiration and further studies are required to assess gastric emptying and gastro-oesophageal reflux following trauma.


Data collection by Dr T. F. Cobby and Dr S. K. Hussain are greatly appreciated. We are also grateful for Professor A. R. Aitkenhead's critique of the manuscript during its development.


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TRAUMA; GASTRIC CONTENTS, aspiration, regurgitation

© 1999 European Society of Anaesthesiology