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Chapter: Medical Surgical Nursing: Management of Patients With Chest and Lower Respiratory Tract Disorders

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Penetrating Trauma: Gunshot and Stab Wounds

Gunshot and stab wounds are the most common types of penetrating chest trauma.



Gunshot and stab wounds are the most common types of pene-trating chest trauma. They are classified according to their veloc-ity. Stab wounds are generally considered of low velocity because the weapon destroys a small area around the wound. Knives and switchblades cause most stab wounds. The appearance of the ex-ternal wound may be very deceptive, because pneumothorax, he-mothorax, lung contusion, and cardiac tamponade, along with severe and continuing hemorrhage, can occur from any small wound, even one caused by a small-diameter instrument such as an ice pick.


Gunshot wounds to the chest may be classified as of low, medium, or high velocity. The factors that determine the veloc-ity and resulting extent of damage include the distance from which the gun was fired, the caliber of the gun, and construction and size of the bullet. A gunshot wound can produce a variety of pathophysiologic changes. A bullet can cause damage at the site of penetration and along its pathway. It also may ricochet off bony structures and damage the chest organs and great vessels. If the diaphragm is involved in either a gunshot wound or a stab wound, injury to the chest cavity must be considered.

Medical Management

The objective of immediate management is to restore and main-tain cardiopulmonary function. After an adequate airway is en-sured and ventilation is established, the patient is examined for shock and intrathoracic and intra-abdominal injuries. The patient is undressed completely so that additional injuries will not be missed. There is a high risk for associated intra-abdominal injuries with stab wounds below the level of the fifth anterior intercostal space. Death can result from exsanguinating hemorrhage or intra-abdominal sepsis.


After the status of the peripheral pulses is assessed, a large-bore intravenous line is inserted. The diagnostic workup includes a chest x-ray, chemistry profile, arterial blood gas analysis, pulse oximetry, and ECG. Blood typing and cross-matching are done in case blood transfusion is required. An indwelling catheter is in-serted to monitor urinary output. A nasogastric tube is inserted to prevent aspiration, minimize leakage of abdominal contents, and decompress the gastrointestinal tract.


Shock is treated simultaneously with colloid solutions, crys-talloids, or blood, as indicated by the patient’s condition. Chest x-rays are obtained, and other diagnostic procedures are carried out as dictated by the needs of the patient (eg, CT scans of chest or abdomen, flat plate x-ray of the abdomen, abdominal tap to check for bleeding).


A chest tube is inserted into the pleural space in most patients with penetrating wounds of the chest to achieve rapid and con-tinuing re-expansion of the lungs. The insertion of the chest tube frequently results in a complete evacuation of the blood and air. The chest tube also allows early recognition of continuing intra-thoracic bleeding, which would make surgical exploration neces-sary. If the patient has a penetrating wound of the heart and great vessels, the esophagus, or the tracheobronchial tree, surgical in-tervention is required.


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