Resident Clinical Pearl: Arterial bleeding

Approach to Arterial Bleeding in the Upper Extremity

Resident Clinical Pearl (RCP) – November 2018

Tara DahnCCFP-EM PGY3, Dalhousie University, Halifax NS

Reviewed by Dr. David Lewis

This post was copyedited by Dr. Mandy Peach

You are working a shift in RAZ when a pair of paramedics wheel a man on a stretcher into one of the procedure rooms. He is sitting upright and looking around but his entire left forearm and hand are wrapped in towels, which are taped tightly down. “I don’t know what’s hurt but there was a lot of blood”, he says when questioned. He had been using a reciprocating saw in his workshop.

Vital signs: T 36.5, HR 90, BP 135/90, RR 18, O2 sats 98% on RA

You ask the nurses to find a tourniquet to put around the patients arm as you start unwrapping his giant towel mitt. You get down to the skin and find a deep 1 inch transverse laceration along the radial side of the wrist. Initially there is no active bleeding, you gingerly pock the wound and …Ooops… immediately bright red pulsatile blood starts pumping out from the distal wound edge and your scrubs will need to be change before you see the next patient.

Approach to arterial bleeding in upper extremity

Life over limb

  • Get control of the bleeding and if needed focus on other more pressing injuries. Start resuscitation if needed
  • There is no bleeding in the extremity that you can’t stop with manual compression.
  • If you can’t spare a person to compress artery then consider a tourniquet. (see Table 1 on tourniquets)
  • Avoid blindly clamping as nerves are bundled with vascular structures and can be easily damaged.


Determine if arterial bleeding/injury exists

Look for hard or soft signs of arterial injury (See Table 2)

If hard signs of arterial injury in major vessel the patient will need operative care. Imaging is not required unless site of bleeding is not clear (and patient is stable).
If there are soft signs of arterial injury do an Arterial Pressure Index (see Box 1) to help determine if there is an underlying arterial injury.
o If API >0.9: Patient unlikely to have an arterial injury. Observe or discharge based on nature of injury/patient.
o If API < 0.9: Possible arterial injury. Patient will need further investigation, preferably by CTA.

  • API is recommended over ABI (Ankle Brachial Index) in lower extremity injuries. ABI compares lower extremity SBP to brachial SBP. Usually patients will have more atherosclerotic disease in their lower extremities, which can falsely elevate their ABI and make it harder to detect a vascular injury. The API, on the other hand, relies on the fact that the amount of atherosclerotic disease is usually symmetric between the two upper and two lower extremities.
  • API is a very good test. An API less than 0.9 has a sensitivity and specificity of 95% and 97% for major arterial injury respectively, and the negative predictive value for an API greater than 0.9 is 99% (Levy et al., 2005).

Consider vessel injured

  • A good understanding of vascular anatomy is important to identify which vessel is injured. See figures 1 and 2.

Figure 1: Upper Extremity Arteries

Figure 2: Lower Extremity Arteries

Examine distal extremity well.

  • In the excitement of pulsatile bleeding it can be easy to be tempted to skip/rush this. But with bleeding controlled remember that the extremities are much less picky about blood supply than your vital organs. You can take a few minutes to examine the distal limbs neurovascular status (blood supply, sensory and motor, tendon integrity) and should as this will be important for management decisions.
  • Arterial injuries can very often be accompanied by nerve and tendon injuries. Complete a full assessment. See Figures 3 &4 for neurologic assessment of hand.
  • Most disability following arterial injuries is not due to the actual arterial injury, but due to the accompanying nerve injury (Ekim, 2009).

Figure 3: Motor examination of the hand. 1 – Median nerve. 2- Ulnar nerve. 3- Radial nerve (Thai et al., 2015)
Figure 4: Sensory innervation of the hand and nerve locations (Thai et al., 2015)

Explore wound carefully

  • It is important to explore the wound carefully to look for other structures damaged.
  • Examine tendons and muscles by putting their accompanying joints through a full ROM to see partial lacerations that may have been pulled out of sight.

Control bleeding definitively

Proximal arterial injuries (brachial artery, proximal radial/ulnar artery)

-All brachial artery injuries will require urgent repair by vascular surgeon.
-The “golden period” is 6-8 hours before ischemia-reperfusion injury will endanger the viability of the limb (Ekim, 2009). Degree of ischemia depends on whether injury is proximal or distal to the profunda brachii (Ekim, 2009)
-Larger more proximal arteries are rarely injured alone and will nearly all have nerve/tendon/muscle injuries also requiring operative repair

Forearm/hand arterial injuries
-Many arterial injuries in/near the hand will NOT require operative repair as there are very robust collaterals in the hand with dual blood supply from the radial and ulnar arteries in most people.

-Steps to management
Manual direct digital compression: 15 minutes direct pressure without interruption will often be successful on its own.

Temporary tourniquet application and wound closure with running non-absorbable suture followed by compact compressive dressing. If vessel obviously visible may try tying off but blindly clamping/tying will likely injury neighboring structures, particularly nerves.

Operative repair may be required if bleeding cannot be controlled with above measures.
Studies have shown that in the absence of acute hand ischemia, simple ligation of a lacerated radial or ulnar artery is safe and cost effective (Johnson, M. & Johansen M.F., 1993) however some surgeons may still opt to perform a primary repair.


Approach for our case

Life over limb

Patient was hemodynamically stable at presentation. IV access had already been obtained by the paramedics. Bleeding was controlled with direct pressure. When visualization was required at the site of the wound a tourniquet was used.

Determine if arterial bleeding
Our patient had a clear hard sign for arterial bleeding- pulsatile blood

Consider vessel injured
Our patients pulsatile bleeding was coming from the distal edge of the wound. Leading us to conclude that it was pulsing retrograde from the palmar arch (See Figure 5 for more detailed anatomy).

Examine distal extremity well
Our patient had a completely normal sensory and motor exam of his hand as well as normal tendon function. Lucky!

Explore wound carefully
A tourniquet was needed to properly visualize and explore the wound. There were no other injured structures identified.

Control the bleeding definitively
Direct pressure for 15 minutes did not stop the bleeding. The ends of the vessel were not identified on initial wound inspection. The wound was extended a short distance (~1cm) in the direction of the bleeding but still the vessel was not identified.

Plastic surgery was consulted. They extended the wound another 3 cm distally and were able to identify the artery, which had been transected longitudinally. They concluded that it was likely the radial artery just past the superficial palmar branch. The hand was well perfused and thus the artery was ligated. The wound was irrigated well, closed and the patient was discharged with a volar slab splint and follow up.



Ekim, H. & Tuncer, M. (2009). Management of traumatic brachial artery injuries: A report on 49 patients. Ann Saudi Med. 29(2): 105-109.

Johnson, M. & Johansen, M.F. (1993). Radial or Ulnar Artery Laceration – Repair or Ligate? Arch Surg 128(9), 971-975.

Levy, B. A., Zlowodzki, M.P., Graves, M. & Cole, P.A. (2005). Screening for extremity arterial injury with the arterial pressure index. The American Journal of Emergency Medicine, 23(5), 689-695.

Thai, J.N. et al. (2015). Evidence-based Comprehensive Approach to Forearm Arterial Laceration. Western Journal of Emergency Medicine, 16(7), 1127-1134.

Life in the Fast Lane: Extremity arterial injury

Tinntinalli’s Emergency Medicine


This post was copyedited by Dr. Mandy Peach

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EM Reflections – March 2018

Thanks to Dr. Paul Page for leading the discussions this month

Edited by Dr David Lewis 



Top tips from this month’s rounds:

Abdominal Aortic Aneurysm – Size matters, but it isn’t everything




Abdominal Aortic Aneurysm – Which patients require urgent consult / transfer ?

AAA is a disease of older age. The prevalence of AAA among men aged 65 to 80 is 4 to 6 times higher than in women of the same age. The Canadian Task Force on Preventative Healthcare have recently (2017) made the following recommendations on screening:

Recommendation 1: We recommend one-time screening with ultrasound for AAA for men aged 65 to 80. (Weak recommendation; moderate quality of evidence)

Recommendation 2: We recommend not screening men older than 80 years of age for AAA. (Weak recommendation; low quality of evidence)

Recommendation 3: We recommend not screening women for AAA. (Strong recommendation; very low quality of evidence)


Emergency Physicians are trained to recognize the signs and symptoms of ruptured AAA (hypotension, tachycardia, pulsatile abdominal mass, back pain) and are always on the lookout for those curveball presentations e.g renal colic mimic, syncope, sciatica etc.

With the organization of centralized vascular services predominating in the majority of developed national health systems, patients with ruptured AAAs are now being transferred for specialist care. Recent evidence from the UK suggests that this practice is safe with no observed increased mortality or length of stay. and other studies have shown a benefit, with reduced mortality post service-centralization.

While there maybe benefits of centralization for patients, vascular surgeons and health economies, the initial management of the patient with AAA disease can be increasingly challenging for the Emergency Physician, especially if they are located in a peripheral hospital.

Let us consider a few scenarios:

  • A 70yr old man presents to a peripheral hospital (without CT), 120km from the vascular centre, with severe back pain and hypotension. Point of Care Ultrasound (PoCUS) confirms the diagnosis of a 7.5cm AAA.

This scenario is relatively straightforward. The patient is judiciously resuscitated (avoiding aggressive fluid infusion), and transferred, after discussion with on-call vascular surgery, as quickly as possible directly to the receiving hospital’s vascular OR.


  • A 70yr old man presents to a peripheral hospital (without CT), 120km from the vascular centre, with moderate flank pain and normal vital signs. They are known to have a 3.7cm AAA (last surveillance scan 6 months ago). PoCUS confirms the presence of an AAA measuring approx. 3.7cm. Urinalysis is negative.

This scenario is also relatively straightforward. While the cause of the flank pain has not been determined, the risk of AAA rupture is highly improbable. For men with an AAA of 4.0 cm or smaller, it takes more than 3.5 years to have a risk of rupture greater than 1%. Given the stable vital signs, low pain score and lack of significant change in AAA size, this patient can be safely worked-up initially at the peripheral hospital pending transfer for abdominal CT if diagnosis remains unclear or symptoms change.


  • A 70yr old man presents to a peripheral hospital (without CT), 120km from the vascular centre, with moderate flank pain and normal vital signs. They have no past medical history. PoCUS confirms the presence of a new 4.7cm AAA.  

This scenario starts to become more challenging. Is the AAA leaking? Is the AAA rapidly expanding? Has PoCUS accurately measured the AAA size, Is the AAA causing the symptoms or is there another diagnosis? While this AAA is still below the elective repair size (5.5cm), the rate of growth is not know (and this is important), 4.7cm AAAs do occasionally rupture and rapidly expanding AAA’s can cause pain (the phenomena is more common in inflammatory and mycotic aetiologies). In this scenario the safest approach would be to organize transfer for an urgent CT and to arrange for Vascular Surgey consult immediately thereafter.



Salmonella aortitis may appear after a febrile gastroenteritis. The common location of primary aortitis and aneurysm formation is at the posterior wall of the suprarenal or supraceliac aorta – . 2010; 3(1): 7–15.


Aortitis is the all-encompassing term ascribed to inflammation of the aorta. The most common causes of aortitis are the large-vessel vasculitides including GCA and Takayasu arteritis. The majority of cases of aortitis are non-infectious, however an infectious cause must always be considered, as treatment for infectious and non-infectious aortitis is significantly different.

This article provides a detailed summary of the diagnosis and management of Aortitis



EM Reflections - March 2018 - CME Quiz

EM Reflections – March 2018 – CME Quiz

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