Managing and securing the bleeding upper airway: a narrative review

Michael Seltz Kristensen, Barry McGuire
Canadian Journal of Anaesthesia 2020, 67 (1): 128-140
Failure to manage bleeding in the airway is an important cause of airway-related death. The purpose of this narrative review is to identify techniques and strategies that can be employed when severe bleeding in the upper airway may render traditional airway management (e.g., facemask ventilation, intubation via direct/video laryngoscopy, flexible bronchoscopy) impossible because of impeded vision. An extensive literature search was conducted of bibliographic databases, guidelines, and textbooks using search terms related to airway management and bleeding. We identified techniques that establish a definitive airway, even in cases of impeded visibility resulting from severe bleeding in the airway. These include flexible video-/optical- scope-guided intubation via a supraglottic airway device; cricothyroidotomy or tracheotomy; and retrograde-, blind nasal-, oral-digital-, light-, and ultrasound-guided intubation. We provide a structured approach to managing bleeding in the airway that accounts for the source of bleeding and the estimated risk of failure to intubate using direct laryngoscopy or to achieve a front-of-neck access for surgical airway rescue. In situations where these techniques are predicted to be successful, the recommended approach is to identify the cricothyroid membrane (in preparation for rescue cricothyroidotomy), followed by rapid sequence induction. In situations where traditional management of the airway is likely to fail, we recommend an awake approach with one of the aforementioned techniques.

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