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Open Access Publications from the University of California

Altitude-Related Change in Endotracheal Tube Cuff Pressures in Helicopter EMS


Introduction: Over-inflation of endotracheal tube (ETT) cuffs has the potential to lead to scarring and stenosis of the trachea.1, 2,3, 4 The air inside an ETT cuff is subject to expansion as atmospheric pressure decreases, as happens with an increase in altitude. Emergency medical services helicopters are not pressurized, thereby providing a good environment for studying the effects of altitude changes ETT cuff pressures. This study aims to explore the relationship between altitude and ETT cuff pressures in a helicopter air-medical transport program.

Methods: ETT cuffs were initially inflated in a nonstandardized manner and then adjusted to a pressure of 25 cmH2O. The pressure was again measured when the helicopter reached maximum altitude. A final pressure was recorded when the helicopter landed at the receiving facility.

Results: We enrolled 60 subjects in the study. The mean for initial tube cuff pressures was 70 cmH2O. Maximum altitude for the program ranged from 1,000-3,000 feet above sea level, with a change in altitude from 800-2,480 feet. Mean cuff pressure at altitude was 36.52 ± 8.56 cmH2O. Despite the significant change in cuff pressure at maximum altitude, there was no relationship found between the maximum altitude and the cuff pressures measured.

Conclusion: Our study failed to demonstrate the expected linear relationship between ETT cuff pressures and the maximum altitude achieved during typical air-medical transportation in our system. At altitudes less than 3,000 feet above sea level, the effect of altitude change on ETT pressure is minimal and does not require a change in practice to saline-filled cuffs.

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