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Airway management is the medical process of ensuring there is an open pathway between a patient’s lungs and the outside world, as well as reducing the risk of aspiration. Airway management is a primary consideration in cardiopulmonary resuscitation, anaesthesia, emergency medicine, intensive care medicine and first aid.
Head-tilt chin-lift — The head-tilt chin-lift is the primary maneuver used in any patient in whom cervical spine injury is not a concern. The simplest way of ensuring an open airway in an unconscious patient is to use a head tilt chin lift technique, thereby lifting the tongue from the back of the throat. This is taught on most first aid courses as the standard way of clearing an airway.
Jaw-thrust maneuver — The jaw-thrust maneuver is an effective airway technique, particularly in the patient in whom cervical spine injury is a concern. The jaw thrust is a technique used on patients with a suspected spinal injury and is used on a supine patient. The practitioner uses their index and middle fingers to physically push the posterior (back) aspects of the mandible upwards while their thumbs push down on the chin to open the mouth. When the mandible is displaced forward, it pulls the tongue forward and prevents it from occluding (blocking) the entrance to the trachea, helping to ensure a patent (secure) airway.
The International Liaison Committee on Resuscitation no longer advocates use of the jaw thrust by lay rescuers,[not in citation given] even for spinal-injured victims, although health care professionals still maintain the technique for specific applications. Instead, lay rescuers are advised to use the same head-tilt for all victims.
Cervical spine immobilization — Most airway maneuvers are associated with some movement of the cervical spine (c-spine). Even though collars for holding the head in-line can cause problems maintaining an airway and maintaining a blood pressure, it is unrecommended to remove the collar without adequate personnel to manually hold the head in place.
Oropharyngeal airway — Oropharyngeal airways (OPA) (also known as Guedel airways) are rigid plastic curved devices used to maintain an open airway. It does this by preventing the tongue from covering the epiglottis, which could prevent the person from breathing. When a person becomes unconscious, the muscles in their jaw relax and allow the tongue to obstruct the airway. An OPA should only be used in a deeply unresponsive patient because in a responsive patient they can cause vomiting and aspiration by stimulating the gag reflex.
Nasopharyngeal airway — The nasopharyngeal airway (NPA) (also known as a nasal trumpet) is a soft rubber or plastic hollow tube that is passed through the nose into the posterior pharynx. Patients tolerate NPAs more easily than OPAs, so NPAs can be used when the use of an OPA is difficult, such as when the patient's jaw is clenched or the patient is semiconscious and cannot tolerate an OPA. NPAs are generally not recommended if there is suspicion of a fracture to the base of the skull, due to the possibility of the tube entering the cranium. However, the actual risks of this complication occurring compared to the risks of damage from hypoxia if an airway is not used are debatable.
Supraglottic airways (also called extraglottic) are a family of devices that are inserted through the mouth to sit on top of the larynx. The most well known example is the Laryngeal Mask Airway (LMA). Other variations include devices with oesophageal access ports, so that a separate tube can be inserted from the mouth to the stomach to decompress accumulated gases and drain liquid contents. Some devices can have an endotracheal tube passed through them into the trachea (intubating LMA).
Supraglottic airways are used in the majority of operations performed under general anaesthesia. Compared to a cuffed tracheal tube (see below), they give less protection against aspiration but are easier to insert and cause less laryngeal trauma.
Tracheal intubation, often simply referred to as intubation, is the placement of a flexible plastic or rubber tube into the trachea (windpipe) to maintain an open airway or to serve as a conduit through which to administer certain drugs. It is frequently performed in critically injured, ill or anesthetized patients to facilitate ventilation of the lungs, including mechanical ventilation, and to prevent the possibility of asphyxiation or airway obstruction. The most widely used route is orotracheal, in which an endotracheal tube is passed through the mouth and vocal apparatus into the trachea. In a nasotracheal procedure, an endotracheal tube is passed through the nose and vocal apparatus into the trachea.
A cricothyrotomy is an incision made through the skin and cricothyroid membrane to establish a patent airway during certain life-threatening situations, such as airway obstruction by a foreign body, angioedema, or massive facial trauma. A cricothyrotomy is nearly always performed as a last resort in cases where orotracheal and nasotracheal intubation are impossible or contraindicated. Cricothyrotomy is easier and quicker to perform than tracheotomy, does not require manipulation of the cervical spine and is associated with fewer complications.]
A Tracheotomy is a surgically created opening from the skin of the neck down to the trachea (windpipe). A tracheotomy may be considered where a person will need to be on a mechanical ventilator for a long time. The advantages of a tracheotomy include less risk of infection and damage to the trachea such as tracheal stenosis.
In the case of a patient who vomits or has other secretions in the airway, these techniques will not be enough. Suitably trained clinicians may elect to use suction to clean out the airway, although this may not always be possible. An unconscious patient who is regurgitating stomach contents should be turned into the recovery position when there is no suction equipment available, as this allows (to a certain extent) the drainage of fluids out of the mouth instead of down the trachea.
The best method of airway management during CPR is controversial. There has been less emphasis on airway management (including simple mouth-to-mouth or invasive methods) during CPR, since it was shown that people receiving initial chest-compression-only CPR were more likely to survive than those who had standard CPR. People who are resuscitated with basic bag-mask ventilation may also be more likely to survive than those who are intubated or have a supraglottic airway inserted. However, in children, or where the cause of the arrest was an airway or breathing problem, or where the arrest is prolonged, airway management is still important.
In basic life support, many people can be reluctant to start mouth-to-mouth resuscitation. The American Heart Association now supports "Hands-only"™ CPR, which advocates chest compressions without any airway management for teens or adults. Bystanders who see an adult suddenly collapse should call for help and move to chest compressions straight away. It is likely that later in resuscitation care by trained professionals, simple methods as well as supraglottic and tracheal airways each have a role, depending on the skills of the person performing them and the equipment or environment they are working in.
In prehospital environments, airway management is controversial, with intubation and supraglottic airways each having advantages and disadvantages. Trauma victims are often not fasting so there is an increased risk of aspiration, but blood and other material may make it difficult to see the larynx to intubate.