Thoracic aortic injury (TAI) is a devastating condition in which prompt recognition can obviate morbidity and mortality. It is a long-held belief that TAI is more likely when there is a “major mechanism of injury.” The purposes of this prospective study were to determine mechanism characteristics that are predictive of TAI and to evaluate chest computed tomography (CT) as a screening tool for TAI.
Over a 5 1/2 year period, blunt chest trauma patients at two Level I trauma centers were evaluated for potential TAI. Patients were assigned mechanism and radiograph scores from 1 (low suspicion for TAI) to 5 (very high suspicion for TAI). Immediate aortography was obtained when suspicion for TAI was very high. The remaining patients were evaluated with contrast-enhanced chest CT. Confirmatory aortography was obtained on all positive chest CT scans and on all patients with mechanism scores of 4 or 5 even if the CT was negative. Mechanism and radiographic data were correlated with the results of aortic imaging.
Of the 1,561 patients evaluated for TAI, 30 aortic injuries were found. The assessment of mechanism was imperfect with a reliance on often incomplete and subjective data. The subjective mechanism score proved to be the most useful predictor of TAI. Radiographic scores were useful but insensitive for intimal injuries. Computed tomography was found to have 100% and 100% NPV for TAI.
Considering the inherent difficulties in identifying patients at risk for TAI and the effectiveness of chest CT as a screening tool for aortic injury, we recommend liberal use of chest CT in blunt chest trauma. Guidelines for determining the need for aortic imaging are outlined.