When Learning Intubation Is Hard

Learning to intubate is easier for some people than for others. Sometimes, no matter how knowledgeable you are about the theory of the intubation technique, the novice can still struggle to bring it all together to pass the endotracheal tube. The anatomy can be confusing. Understanding how to place the laryngoscope blade and manipulate that anatomy can be challenging. And all the while you must be ever vigilant to protect those precious front teeth, avoid hypertension and tachycardia, and breathe for the patient at regular intervals.

I believe there are 4 chief barriers that inhibit learning how to intubate:

  1. Failure to visualize how the outside anatomy links with the inside anatomy makes it hard to predict how deeply to insert the blade.
  2. A mistaken belief that placing the laryngoscope blade itself is all that is needed to align the axes of the airway and reveal the larynx.
  3. Failure to grasp the dynamic nature of the larynx, and the need to actively manipulate it during intubation.
  4. A lack of understanding that intubation is not a sequence of isolated steps, but is instead a complex dance of interacting steps, each setting the stage for the next.

This discussion is going to assume some knowledge of the basic intubation technique. If you’d like to review those basics you can find links for multiple prior in depth discussions at the end of this article. (Illustrations and animation from Anyone Can Intubate, 5th edition, C Whitten MD.) Continue reading

Intubation With A Curved Blade

Direct laryngoscopy depends on being able to bring the 3 axes of the airway into alignment to see the larynx. Curved blades are commonly used, especially by beginners because they are more forgiving of less than optimal placement and provide more room to pass the tube. However, it’s important to use them correctly. This article will discuss intubation technique using a curved blade. Straight and curved blades use different techniques for bringing the larynx into view. For a discussion of how to use a straight blade click here. Continue reading

Intubation: Step By Step

Learning intubation technique can be challenging. Fall is the time of year when new students commonly begin to learn how to intubate. My first intubation was one of the first times I literally held someone’s life in my hands. I was nervous. The anesthesiologist teaching me tried to not look too anxious as I awkwardly grabbed my laryngoscope blade, fumbled while opening the patient’s mouth, and cautiously maneuvered the endotracheal tube into the trachea. It felt like time stopped until the tube was in place, after which the three of us (me, my teacher and my patient) all took a deep breath. Since then, over the last almost 37 years, I’ve intubated thousands of people in the U.S. and, as an international volunteer, eight countries.

So I thought it would be helpful at this time of year to discuss a step-by-step approach to intubation with the commonly used curved blade. Intubation, like a dance, is composed of steps that flow naturally from one to the next. The trick to a smooth intubation is to allow each step to blend seamlessly into the next. The text and illustrations below are excerpted from my book Anyone Can Intubate, as well as from my upcoming book on pediatric intubation, which I’m busy writing. Continue reading

Tips To Teaching Intubation

To teach intubation skills on living patients, even those that have practiced on a manikin, can be challenging. With fall comes the new crop of trainees eager to learn how to intubate. There will also be a new group of instructors teaching their first students to intubate. It’s important to anticipate the common errors so we can safeguard our patients. Here I describe the all of the barriers, physical as well as psychological, that interfere with your student’s learning of the intubation technique. I offer tips on how to help your student conquer those barriers, while keeping your patient safe. Continue reading

Avoiding Difficult Intubation Of The Easy Airway

It’s extremely easy to make any otherwise routine intubation difficult just by failing to properly position the patient or to use optimal technique. We’ve all done it. Let’s see how to avoid this pitfall. (All illustrations by Christine Whitten MD, Anyone Can Intubate). Continue reading

Intubating An Infant or Toddler

This article discussion some of the key anatomy, physiology, and technical points to intubating an infant or small child safely. I’ve been hard at work on writing and illustrating my upcoming book on pediatric airway management so I thought I would spend some time talking about care of our littlest patients.

Providers who infrequently care for children less than two years of age are often rightfully anxious when faced with a sick child, especially if airway management is required. This is especially true if the child is less than one. Healthy respect is certainly indicated because airway complications are one of the leading causes of pediatric cardiac arrest.

Children are not small adults. From infants to toddlers to teenagers, the anatomy and physiology of the child is continuously morphing until finally reaching the adult form and function. We all know this instinctively. When we look at a child we can often tell how old he or she is simply by looking at head size, characteristics of the face, length of neck, shape of the body, and how long the arms and legs are related to the trunk. It should not be surprising that the inside of the child is changing as well.

Photo placing oral airway in preparation to mask ventilating an infant

Even placing an oral airway and using a mask in an infant can seem more challenging because of the size and fragility of the patient.

Infants and young children are small. The head of a newborn infant can fit on the palm of my hand. The palm of a premature infant’s hand may be the same size as my thumbnail. It’s challenging to open the airway of such a small infant when adult fingers dwarf the size of the baby’s mouth and all of the instruments are smaller. And babies are fragile, with little reserve.

Like adults, children can be small or tall, lean or overweight. But unlike adults, their airway anatomy is changing shape and structural relationships as they grow. A particular 2 year old may be as tall as a particular 6 year old, or as heavy as a particular 8 year old, but all have very different airways.

Intubating an infant or small child is more of a challenge than an older child or adult both because of their anatomical differences as well as their physiologic predisposition for hypoxia. One can certainly argue that faced with elective care, that only experienced providers should manage the airways of infants and children less than two. However, medical care is not always elective.

Faced with a sick child, especially in more urgent settings, anyone who can ventilate and intubate an adult can also ventilate or intubate an infant or toddler safely —if they take the differences in anatomy and physiology into account, and are gentle and methodical in their approach. Illustrations and photos from Anyone Can Intubate: a Step by Step Guide, and Pediatric Airway Management: a Step by Step Guide. Continue reading

Positioning The Head For Intubation

Positioning the head and neck for intubation in the sniffing position can make intubation easy, or extremely hard. Many years ago our operating room administration decided that the bath towels we were using to position the head for intubation were a potential danger for shedding lint. So one night, in their infinite wisdom, the towels were all summarily confiscated and when we arrived the next morning there wasn’t a single towel to be found, ever again. It may be an exaggeration to say that chaos ensued, but it felt like that.

The reason this event is so memorable is that for the next several days our anesthesia providers had trouble intubating. We likened it to an expert golfer who, when suddenly faced with a new set of golf clubs of slightly different weight and length, suddenly has to relearn the game. It made us realize that how we position the head in the sniffing position often sets us up for either an easy or for a more difficult intubation if you don’t realize what’s happening during the positioning. Continue reading

Glidescope: Tricks For Successful Intubation

Glidescopes, one of the several videolaryngoscopes in use, are very easy to use. However, intubation with the Glidescope is very different than direct laryngoscopy. I have seen many novice Glidescope users struggle to intubate, despite having great views of the larynx. Failure to recognize the differences of using the Glidescope can make intubation not only frustrating but also hazardous to your patient. Beginners almost always make the same few easy to correct mistakes. Let’s explore those mistakes and discuss how to correct them.illustration of a glidescope intubation in cords section, with the view of the larynx behind in a monitor Continue reading

The Bougie: Use Wisely To Avoid Rare But Serious Complications

Inserting a bougie to assist with difficult intubation

Inserting a bougie to assist with difficult intubation

One of the simplest and most valuable devices to help with a difficult intubation is the bougie. The primary use is a difficult intubation, when you cannot see the larynx well but are able to predict where the glottic opening should be based on anatomy. However bougies must be used with care to avoid patient injury.

The bougie is an endotracheal introducer that is made of a braided polyester base with a resin coating, giving it both flexibility and stiffness at body temperature. The standard size for intubation is 15 Fr, which is 60 cm long. There is a 10 Fr pediatric version which can be used for endotracheal tubes as small as 4 to 6mm. A bougie will retain the curvature given to it, making it very useful for anterior airways. I highly recommend that you have a bougie in the room whenever you intubate because it is a quick and easy aide when the unexpected difficult intubation occurs. However, like so many of our tools you you have to use it wisely or you can seriously hurt your patient. Continue reading

Using Straight Laryngoscopy Blades

Intubation by direct laryngoscopy depends on using the laryngoscope blade to give you a clear field of view of the larynx by shifting the tongue and other pharyngeal structures out of the way. As you might imagine, the patient’s anatomy, pathology, or position can sometimes make this visualization difficult. Laryngoscopy blades come in different shapes to help manage these various situations.

My padawan students often struggle with using a straight blade, such as the Miller blade, as opposed to a curved blade, such as the MacIntosh blade. Let’s talk today about how and then when to use a straight blade.

Photo of Laryngoscopy using the straight blade showing the larynx.

Laryngoscopy using the straight blade showing the larynx.

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