Lots of beliefs are hard to shake. Andrew Weatherall covers one from the paediatric airway – the holy status of the straight blade.
As I’ve mentioned before, paediatric airway management is full of mythological beasts. Some of that is about anatomy stuff and the like. Some is about equipment. Plenty is about technique. Sometimes it’s about technique and equipment together. Bliss.
So this is where I wade into another topic in paeds airways:
Straight blades are overrated and you should throw them away.
Do we need big bins?
Well, actually no. Stop the indignant letter writing. When I say they’re overrated I don’t mean they have no value. They have a role like most items of equipment that are still in use after nearly 100 years probably still have a role.
What I do mean is that straight blades are treated with a reverence in paediatric airway management that is unwarranted, while curved blades like the Macintosh seem to be described as “bigger people’s airway devices”. Trainees could easily go through their whole training period thinking that you must always use straight blades for patients who understand what the hell Pokemon are all about.
That just isn’t true. People who swear by straight blades will point to the more anterior epiglottis and the angle of the cords to argue the case for their chosen device just as convincingly as those who like a curved blade point out that they get more working space in the mouth and a familiar blade and both will be sort of right.
It might be useful to dive into this a little more. So let’s work through a paper from 2014 that specifically looked at the straight vs curved blade question. Partly because it gives an appropriate ‘meh’ when trying to split the two options but also because it highlights how myths can dominate our perception of the original work.
Welcoming the Contenders
The paper here appeared in Pediatric Anesthesia in 2014 (I touched on this in the other post). The authors set out with a useful question: is there a difference between Miller and Macintosh blades when it comes to ease of obtaining a view and success of intubation in the 1-24 month age range?
They looked at well kids having elective surgery under anaesthesia where muscle relaxation was also used. They included 120 kids and each kid had laryngoscopy with one device then the other.
The results are a case of a big old shrug, which is sort of OK. Easy laryngoscopy was noted in pretty much the same percentages. First pass success pretty much the same. The rates of one being better for the view than the other were pretty much the same. When it was difficult with one view the rate of switching to the other and finding it was easier was about the same regardless of whether you had started with the Macintosh or Miller.
So the two blades that stepped into the ring step out with no knock out punch thrown. There are a number of other interesting points when you look in more detail though and a few comments I’d make in passing.
- The epiglottis isn’t the endpoint
I have this impression that trainees get really obsessed needing to pick up and control the epiglottis with a straight blade. In this paper the routine use of the straight blade was to place the tip in the vallecula. In only 2 of the 60 uses of the Miller blade did they pick up the epiglottis.
Why do people get so antsy about picking up the epiglottis? It was only ever described as one of the options to obtain the view, not the only option. Those early designers never forgot the aim: to obtain a view to let you instrument the trachea.
Here’s Miller from the paper where he described his blade:
“The epiglottis is visualized and raised slightly to exposure the cords or, if the operator desires, the tip of the blade maybe placed in front of the epiglottis and raised sufficiently to visualize the cords after the method of Macintosh.”
In fact Macintosh described the straight blade being used in this manner when he reported on his own design, singling out Dr Margaret Hawksley as an exponent of this technique. The authors of this recent paper further point out that it’s a lot more stimulating to pick up the epiglottis. That’s worth at least a thought.
Miller wasn’t precious about how you get the view. The idea that picking up the epiglottis is the only technique just got repeated enough that no one remembers to question it. The epiglottis isn’t the main game. The view is the thing.
- Make sure of your basic technique
One of the other interesting features here is that there are some elements of the intubation technique that seem like they could do with a review. An example: the Miller blade was advanced centrally along the tongue. This is a technique taught by heaps of people and I think Miller probably would have strong feelings about that. Again let’s go back to the paper:
“The blade is inserted in the right side of the mouth, pushing the tongue to the left.”
One of the bigger challenges in getting a view in paediatric patients is getting the tongue out of the way. This is particularly for straight blades which tend to have less of a flange to do some of the work for you. I’m not the only one who thinks so, either:
“On passing the instrument into the mouth the tongue should be manipulated to the left side, away from the slot; otherwise the organ may roll into the barrel and completely obstruct the view.”
That was Magill. In 1930. Now Magill might have been describing the use of a speculum but the principle is the same. The tongue is only likely to make your view worse (and given that straight blades pose an additional challenge in having not as much space proximally to work in, that really matters).
Magill went on to point out that if you struggled at all you could move the proximal end of our instrument further to the right corner of the mouth – that’s also known as the paraglossal view and turns out to be pretty much the best way to go.
In other basic technique points the authors of this recent paper mention that laryngoscopy was done with the head in a neutral position. This doesn’t seem like optimal head positioning for use of either blade, and that’s another point worth keeping in mind.
- It’s useful to know what the intended use was with your instrument of choice
In this paper and in the comparison with the Cardiff blade they refer to as an example of other “blade vs blade” papers, a comment is made that when you introduce an endotracheal tube centrally you can compromise the view and that it’s not great for introducing your tube via any central channel.
“The scope is used for visualizing the cords only. One should work outside the blade to insert the tube. The only criticism of the instrument has been that it is too small through which to work. It was not designed to be used as a guide for the catheter.” (That’s the author’s work with the italics, not an edit from me.)
In fact Miller searched for a new design because he felt small laryngoscope blades on the market were too big. It’s designed to be small.
So yes, you need to use a technique where you bring the tube in from the side. That was always the point.
- Should we stop talking about external laryngeal manipulation like it’s an extra?
This is really a bit of open musing on my part. This was done in over 50% of the patients in both groups and generally helped when it was used. I can see how the precision of description goes up when we include these details but it strikes me as so much a part of every intubation (as this external pressure means less work for the laryngoscope itself) that I wonder how much it adds to our appreciation of clinical use. That’s one for the comments section I guess.
Messages for the Prehospital or Retrieval Type
After sifting though all of that, what are the take home messages? Well, here are some from me that might need additions from others:
- Know what you do and why you do it
Those picking up a laryngoscope for the little people need to have thought through what they will use and why. If I’m offered a personal preference it is to use a curved blade for everyone. Even as a paeds anaesthetist I’ve just used a curved blade more. It’s better designed to control that pesky tongue. You get a huge working space within the mouth and with external laryngeal manipulation (which I’d call standard) you can pretty much always bring the airway into view, even in the slightly anterior larynx.
I haven’t seen a study that would confirm this hunch, but I wonder if one of the problems some prehospital clinicians have with paeds intubation is they pick up a laryngoscope they didn’t really learn, very rarely use or rehearse with and don’t really understand. You need to focus your technique slightly differently with a straight blade. Add the stress of the situation and is it any wonder the job becomes harder?
I’d back the occasional proceduralist as more likely to intuitively understand the anatomy using the same sort of blade they always use. I doubt it’s a study that would be easy to set up in anything but mannequins though.
- Know the different options
That preference for people using what they know doesn’t mean you shouldn’t learn both. This study did highlight that some kids just have a better view with a particular blade. You can’t quite get as good a view with one option, switch to the next and all of a sudden it’s easier. Again though if you’re reaching for that other option use it right.
- Make your technique appropriate for the 1% and the 99% will be fine
This is more of a general point. Laryngoscopy in infants is easy the vast majority of the time. So if you don’t bother controlling the tongue you’ll probably get by most times. It’s the 1% where your routine practice of not getting the tongue out of your view, or being able to aim for either the vallecula or epiglottis, or positioning the head right will start to bite.
If you always do everything to maximise your view, you’ve already got a good technique for the 1%. It’s best not to need to review your technique once the blade is in and you’ve figured out this is the tough one you’ve been dreading.
So after all that, maybe paediatric airway instrumentation comes down to a really simple refrain: the tool in the hand matters less than the tool holding it.
That image comes from Marc Zimmer on flickr under Creative Commons and is unaltered.
Here’s the paper mentioned again:
And the others …
A review on the popularity of the Macintosh blade:
and the Cardiff paper: