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Emerg Med J. 2007 August; 24(8): 581–582.
PMCID: PMC2660093

Ultrasound to detect haemothorax after chest injury

Ultrasound to detect haemothorax after chest injury

Report by Kirsty McEwan, Medical Student

Checked by Peter Thompson, Consultant

Guy, Kings and St Thomas' Medical School, London, UK


A short cut review was carried out to establish whether ultrasonography is as sensitive and specific as chest x ray or computed tomography (CT) scan in detecting haemothorax after chest trauma. Thirty‐nine papers were found using the reported searches, of which six presented the best evidence to answer the clinical question. The author, date and country of publication, patient group studied, study type, relevant outcomes, results and study weaknesses of these best papers are shown in table 33.. It is concluded that ultrasonography is more sensitive and as specific as chest x ray at detecting haemothorax in patients with chest trauma.

Table thumbnail
Table 3

Three‐part question

[In adults with thoracic trauma] does [emergency department ultrasonography have better clinical utility than chest x ray] at [diagnosing haemothorax]?

Clinical scenario

A patient arrives in the emergency department after suffering thoracic trauma. A member of the team suggests using ultrasound to search for the presence of haemothorax, as an extension of the usual FAST assessment. You wonder how accurate the ultrasound would be compared to either the usual initial supine chest x ray or to a CT scan which could be performed later in the patient's assessment.

Search strategies

Medline 1966 to present (accessed 29 May 2007) using the OVID interface: [ or or or or or pulmonary or thoracic or chest]AND [ or diagnosis/ or diagnosis, computer assisted/ or diagnosis, differential/ or “diagnostic techniques and procedures”/ or diagnostic imaging/ or radiography or radiography, thoracic/ or tomography, x‐ray/ or ultrasonography/ or diagnostic techniques, cardiovascular/ or diagnostic techniques, respiratory system/ or diagnostic tests, routine/ or realy diagnosis or computed or or thoracic] AND [ or or explode ultrasonography/ or or radiological or or thoracic radiological or emergency or transthoracic or thoracic] AND [ or or or or traumatic].

The Cochrane Library Issue 2 2007: (hemothorax):ti,ab,kw OR (haemothorax):ti,ab,kw


Altogether 39 papers were found in Medline, of which 34 were irrelevant or of insufficient quality. Twenty‐five papers were found in Cochrane—the only relevant paper had already been found in Medline. A further paper was found by scanning the references of relevant papers. All relevant papers are summarised in table 33.


Ultrasound is a sensitive, specific and accurate technique for detecting haemothorax in thoracic trauma patients. CT does detect some haemothoraces not seen on ultrasound; however, in a clinical situation, the two methods are performed on different patient populations and so are not directly comparable. The most clinically relevant diagnostic imaging method with which to compare ultrasound is the supine chest radiograph as they both are performed in the initial assessment of the patient. When compared directly to the supine chest x ray, ultrasound is shown to be more specific at detecting the presence of the haemothorax and is at least as specific and accurate. It also has the added advantage of being able to be performed in much less time, making it a useful diagnostic tool for the early diagnosis of haemothorax. However, it cannot replace the chest x ray as many other injuries can be shown on the chest x ray that cannot be demonstrated by ultrasound.

Clinical bottom line

Ultrasound is a sensitive, specific and accurate method to detect the presence of haemothorax in trauma patients. It cannot, however, replace chest radiography because there is additional information on the x ray that ultrasound cannot provide.


  • Rothlin M, Naf R, Amgwerd M. et al. Ultrasound in blunt abdominal trauma. J Trauma 1993;34:488-95. [PubMed]
  • Ma O J, Mateer J R, Ogata M. et al. Prospective analysis of a rapid trauma ultrasound examination performed by emergency physicians. J Trauma 1995;38:979-95. [PubMed]
  • Ma O J, Mateer J R. Trauma ultrasound examination versus chest radiography in the detection of hemothorax. Ann Emerg Med 1997;29:312-5. [PubMed]
  • Sisley A C, Rozyyeki G S. Rapid detection of traumatic effusion on using surgeon-performed ultrasonography. J Trauma 1998;44:291. [PubMed]
  • Abboud P A, Kendall J.Emergency department ultrasound for hemothorax after blunt traumatic injury. J Emerg Med 2003;25:181-4. [PubMed]
  • Brooks A, Davies B, Smethhurst M. et al. Emergency ultrasound in the acute assessment of haemothorax. Emerg Med J 2004;21:44-6. [PMC free article] [PubMed]

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