Popliteal artery repair in massively transfused military trauma casualties: a pursuit to save life and limb

Charles J Fox, Jeremy G Perkins, John F Kragh, Niten N Singh, Bhavin Patel, James R Ficke
Journal of Trauma 2010, 69 Suppl 1: S123-34

BACKGROUND: Popliteal artery war wounds can bleed severely and historically have high rates of amputation associated with ligation (72%) and repair (32%). More than before, casualties are now surviving the initial medical evacuation and presenting with severely injured limbs that prompt immediate limb salvage decisions in the midst of life-saving maneuvers. A modern analysis of current results may show important changes because previous limb salvage strategies were limited by the resuscitation and surgical techniques of their eras. Because exact comparisons between wars are difficult, the objective of this study was to calculate a worst-case (a pulseless, fractured limb with massive hemorrhage from popliteal artery injury) amputation-free survival rate for the most severely wounded soldiers undergoing immediate reconstruction to save both life and limb.

METHODS: We performed a retrospective study of trauma casualties admitted to the combat support hospital at Ibn Sina Hospital in Baghdad, Iraq, between 2003 and 2007. US military casualties requiring a massive transfusion (> or = 10 blood units transfused within 24 hours of injury) were identified. We extracted data on the subset of casualties with a penetrating supra or infrageniculate popliteal arterial vascular injury. Demographics, injury mechanism, Injury Severity Score, tourniquet use, physiologic parameters, damage control adjuncts, surgical repair techniques, operative time, and outcomes (all-cause 30-day mortality, amputation rates, limb salvage failure, and graft patency) were investigated.

RESULTS: Forty-six massively transfused male casualties, median age 24 years (range, 19-54 years; mean Injury Severity Score, 19 +/- 8.0), underwent immediate orthopedic stabilization and vascular reconstruction. There was one early death. The median operative time for the vascular repairs was 217 minutes (range, 94-630 minutes) and included all damage control procedures. Combined arterial and venous injuries occurred in 17 (37%). Ligation was performed for no arterial and 9 venous injuries. Amputations (transtibial or transfemoral) were considered limb salvage failures (14 of 48, 29.2%) and were grouped as immediate (< or = 48 hours, 5), early (>48 hours and < or = 30 days, 6), or late (>30 days, 3). Limb losses were from graft thrombosis, infection, or chronic pain. Combined arterial and venous injuries occurred in 17 (37%). Ligation was performed for no arterial and nine venous injuries. For a median follow-up (excluding death) of 48 months (range, 23-75 months), the amputation-free survival rate was 67%.

CONCLUSIONS: This study, a worst-case study, showed comparable results to historical controls regarding limb salvage rates (71% for Iraq vs. 56-69% for the Vietnam War). Thirty-day survival (98%), 4-year amputation-free survival (67%), and complication-free rates (35%) fill knowledge gaps. Guidelines for managing popliteal artery injuries show promising results because current resuscitation practices and surgical care yielded similar amputation rates to prior conflicts despite more severe injuries. Significant transfusion requirements and injury severity may not indicate a life-over-limb strategy for popliteal arterial repairs. Future studies of limb salvage failures may help improve casualty care by reducing the complications that directly impact amputation-free survival.

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