Resuscitative thoracotomy
A left-sided thoracotomy incision, allowing direct access to the pericardium, heart, left hilum and left lung.
Other namesEmergency department thoracotomy

A resuscitative thoracotomy (sometimes referred to as an emergency department thoracotomy (EDT), trauma thoracotomy or, colloquially, as "cracking the chest") is a thoracotomy performed to aid in the resuscitation of a major trauma patient who has sustained severe thoracic or abdominal trauma.[1] The procedure allows immediate direct access to the thoracic cavity, permitting rescuers to control hemorrhage, relieve cardiac tamponade, repair or control major injuries to the heart, lungs or thoracic vasculature, and perform direct cardiac massage or defibrillation. The procedure is rarely performed and is a procedure of last resort.[2]: 462 [3]


A resuscitative thoracotomy is indicated when severe injuries within the thoracic cavity (such as hemorrhage) prevent the physiologic functions needed to sustain life. The injury may also affect a specific organ such as the heart, which can develop an air embolism or a cardiac tamponade (which prevents the heart from beating properly). The primary indication for a resuscitative thoracotomy is a patient with penetrating chest trauma who has entered or is about to enter cardiac arrest.[4] Other indications for the use of this procedure include the appearance of blood from a chest tube that returns more than 1500 mL of blood during the first hour of placement, or ≥200 mL of blood per hour two to four hours after placement.[5]

For resuscitative thoracotomy to be indicated, signs of life must also be present, including cardiac electrical activity and a systolic blood pressure >70 mm Hg.[2]: 462 [6] In blunt trauma, if signs of life, such as eye dilatation, are found en route to the hospital by first responders, but not found when the patient arrives, then further resuscitative interventions are contraindicated; however; when first responders find signs of life (respiratory or motor effort, cardiac electrical activity, blood pressure, or pupillary activity)[7] and cardiopulmonary resuscitation time is under 15 minutes, the procedure is indicated.[8]

The use of a focused assessment with sonography for trauma may be performed to determine the need of the procedure by finding free floating fluid in the thoracic cavity.[9]


A left anterolateral thoracotomy is the common method of opening the chest, as it provides rapid access, can be easily extended into the right hemithorax, and provides access to most of the important anatomical structures during resuscitation including the aorta.[10] First an incision is made along the fourth or fifth intercostal space (between the ribs), intercostal muscles and the parietal pleura are divided, and then the ribs are retracted to provide visualization.[6] When the incision covers both the right and left hemithoraxes it is referred to as a "clamshell" thoracotomy. The clamshell thoracotomy is used when there is a right sided pulmonary or vascular injury, or when greater access or visualization is desired.[2]: 242 


Usually those who undergo resuscitative thoracotomy do not recover—only 10% of those receiving it after sustaining a blunt injury, and 15–30% of those with penetrating trauma survive.[10][11][2]: 240  Patients with thoracic stab wounds and patients who arrive at the emergency department with signs of life are associatated with the highest rates of survival. Patients with polytrauma and patients who present without signs of life are associated with the lowest rates of survival.[12]


The procedure was first utilized during the late 1800s by Schiff in conjunction with open cardiac massage. Shortly after it was also used by Block to treat heart lacerations, and the first suture repair performed in 1900.[13] Before external defibrillation and cardiopulmonary resuscitation came in the 1960s, emergency thoracotomy was the preferred way to treat cardiac arrest.[2]: 236 


  1. ^ November 27, 2012. Resuscitative Thoracotomy. San Diego: The Division of Trauma/Surgical Critical Care/Burns is part of the Department of Surgery, UC San Diego Health System.
  2. ^ a b c d e Feliciano DV, Mattox KL, Moore EJ (2012). Trauma (Seventh ed.). New York: McGraw-Hill Professional. ISBN 978-0-07-166351-9.
  3. ^ Eidt JF, Foreman ML. Bulger EM, Wolfson AB, Collins KA (eds.). "Resuscitative thoracotomy: Technique". Retrieved 2023-07-16.
  4. ^ Paulich S, Lockey D (July 2020). "Resuscitative thoracotomy". BJA Education. 20 (7): 242–248. doi:10.1016/j.bjae.2020.03.005. PMC 7807961. PMID 33456957.
  5. ^ Bertoglio P, Guerrera F, Viti A, Terzi AC, Ruffini E, Lyberis P, Filosso PL (February 2019). "Chest drain and thoracotomy for chest trauma". Journal of Thoracic Disease. 11 (Suppl 2): S186–S191. doi:10.21037/jtd.2019.01.53. PMC 6389558. PMID 30906584.
  6. ^ a b Biffl WL, Moore EE (September 2000). "Resuscitative thoracotomy". Operative Techniques in General Surgery. 2 (3): 168–175. doi:10.1053/otgn.2000.17741. S2CID 240245430.
  7. ^ Cothren CC, Moore EE (24 March 2006). "Emergency department thoracotomy for the critically injured patient: Objectives, indications, and outcomes". World Journal of Emergency Surgery. 1 (1): 4. doi:10.1186/1749-7922-1-4. PMC 1459269. PMID 16759407.
  8. ^ Peitzman AB, Sabom M, Yealy DM, Fabian TC (2002). The trauma manual. Hagerstwon, MD: Lippincott Williams & Wilkins. p. 227. ISBN 0-7817-2641-7.
  9. ^ Seamon MJ, Chovanes J, Fox N, Green R, Manis G, Tsiotsias G, et al. (September 2012). "The use of emergency department thoracotomy for traumatic cardiopulmonary arrest". Injury. 43 (9): 1355–1361. doi:10.1016/j.injury.2012.04.011. PMID 22560130.
  10. ^ a b Hunt PA, Greaves I, Owens WA (January 2006). "Emergency thoracotomy in thoracic trauma-a review". Injury. 37 (1): 1–19. doi:10.1016/j.injury.2005.02.014. PMID 16410079.
  11. ^ American College of Surgeons. Committee on Trauma (2008). ATLS, Advanced Trauma Life Support for Doctors. Chicago, IL: American College of Surgeons. p. 92. ISBN 9781880696316.
  12. ^ Rhee PM, Acosta J, Bridgeman A, Wang D, Jordan M, Rich N (March 2000). "Survival after emergency department thoracotomy: review of published data from the past 25 years". Journal of the American College of Surgeons. 190 (3): 288–98. doi:10.1016/s1072-7515(99)00233-1. PMID 10703853.
  13. ^ Brohi K (6 June 2001). "Emergency Department Thoracotomy". Retrieved January 1, 2013.