Correspondence  |   November 2007
Vascular Air Embolism: Lung Injury and Its Pathophysiology Also Need to Be Considered
Author Affiliations & Notes
  • Marek A. Mirski, M.D., Ph.D.
  • *Johns Hopkins Medical Institutions, Baltimore, Maryland.
Article Information
Correspondence   |   November 2007
Vascular Air Embolism: Lung Injury and Its Pathophysiology Also Need to Be Considered
Anesthesiology 11 2007, Vol.107, 853-854. doi:10.1097/01.anes.0000287355.66818.d4
Anesthesiology 11 2007, Vol.107, 853-854. doi:10.1097/01.anes.0000287355.66818.d4
In Reply:—
We very much appreciate the comments from our esteemed anesthesia colleagues. We must immediately apologize to Drs. Faberowski and Tobias in our error in referencing their published data in table 1 of our review.1 Indeed, as Drs. Meyer et al  . point out, the percent of vascular air embolism (VAE) detected in their studies was reversed; an 82.6% incidence of VAE was recorded in the study by Faberowski et al  .,2 whereas an incidence of 8% (4 of 50 patients) was noted by Tobias et al  .3 As Dr. Tobias suggests, the method of craniosynostosis repair likely accounts for much of the reduced incidence of VAE. With respect to the use of the Military Anti-Shock Trousers (MAST) suit with or without positive end-expiratory pressure, we acknowledge the limited discussion that was presented in the review. It is reassuring to review the data from Drs. Meyer et al  . regarding their experience and lack of any significant untoward effects from MAST suit use in sitting pediatric neurosurgery cases. Undoubtedly, the action of the suit aids in maintaining thoracic venous pressure and thus should reduce the incidence of VAE as their studies have shown.4 On review of the many studies on VAE (> 1,200 upon our last appraisal of the literature), few clinical centers have reported routine use of a MAST suit for VAE prevention in pediatric neurosurgery. Reviewing some of the largest series to date, such as that of Harrison et al  .5 involving 407 pediatric sitting craniotomies or that of Leslie et al  .6 involving 100 patients, MAST suits were not used, and the authors of both studies thought that less provocative maneuvers were adequate in the surveillance and prevention of VAE. Both reported approximately a 9% detection rate of VAE, with no untoward clinical circumstances. Unfortunately, no study to date has been published that supports MAST suit use over other technologies with regard to patient outcome benefit. Therefore, the conclusion should be that each center should use such methods in preventing clinically significant VAE as they are comfortable with them and can routinely train and monitor their cases for both benefits and risk.
We agree with Drs. Culp that carbon dioxide would be the preferred gas over nitrogen or other inert gas. Although there is no direct literature that we could find regarding the specific evaluation of nitrogen, there are several investigations comparing carbon dioxide versus  helium demonstrating more serious sequelae from helium-derived VAE.7,8 It is probably safe to presume that nitrogen would exert similar effects, and several authors of review articles on insufflation gases have made this assumption. The comments of Drs. Culp regarding the risk of morbidity stemming from arterial air embolism and the clinical utility of transesophageal echocardiography are certainly seconded by us, and we appreciate the additional voices of support for vigilant monitoring to prevent VAE-associated patient injury.
The authors certainly agree with Dr. Benumof regarding the risk of autotransfusion and VAE. We did find the report by Linden et al  .9 in 1997 chronicling the incidence of fatal gas embolism after transfusion of salvaged blood, but it was after final submission of our manuscript. They indeed found from a database of 127,000 autotransfusion cases a 1:30,000 risk of mortality from insufficiently purged blood bags.9 They also reviewed routine banked blood transfusion and recorded no cases of fatal VAE from among almost 3,000,000 transfusions. We certainly recommend attentive removal of all air from the autotransfusion bag and lines before administering the blood to the patient.
We also appreciate the thoughtful comments by Dr. Fritz. It is indeed accurate to state that the majority of instances of perioperative and line-associated air emboli are venous in origin. While we were organizing the contents for the review article, however, it became apparent that with the arrival of laparoscopic procedures, interventional radiologic interventions, and so forth, new avenues for entraining air into the vascular system were becoming commonplace. Paradoxical air embolus  typically refers to entrainment of venous air that subsequently passes to the arterial vascular network rather than sequestering in the right ventricle or pulmonary tree. Therefore, Dr. Fritz is correct in stating that the combination of both venous and arterial air embolus embodies the umbrella term vascular air embolus  that was used in the review. We also concur that transesophageal echocardiography is the most sensitive tool for the diagnosis of VAE and in documenting the exact passage through the cardiac chambers. Its widespread use is precluded by virtue of the expense and availability of trained personnel, but we again agree that in preparation for procedures at high risk for VAE, transesophageal echocardiography warrants serious consideration.
Dr. Ho et al  . remind us that chest trauma is often complicated by systemic air embolism. Dr. Ho’s important review article published in 1999 on the occurrence of systemic air embolism after lung trauma remains quite relevant today.10 Certainly the physical disruption of either the pulmonary venous or arterial vasculature, coupled with increases in thoracic pressure, creates an excellent scenario for arterial embolism to occur. We also concur with Dr. Ho et al  . that there are indeed many possible clinical scenarios inviting risk for VAE, and we thank them for including additional mention of pulmonary procedures, endoscopic saphenous vein harvesting, and Cavitron ultrasound aspiration. It should be clear to the readers of Anesthesiology that any circumstance that affords a pressure gradient promoting air into the vasculature may result in clinically significant air embolism.
*Johns Hopkins Medical Institutions, Baltimore, Maryland.
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