Use of Tourniquets - 2017 Updates
The following practices are suggested for use by those with relevant training and experience. As with all of our articles, reading alone does not make anyone proficient in any practical skill.
Never has any one subject caused so much debate in First Aid than the use of tourniquets: Whilst it is widely accepted that tourniquets have saved countless lives in a military setting, their use - especially among civilians - is misunderstood and frequently bad practices are still taught.
The Royal College of Surgeons Faculty of Pre-Hospital Care Position statement on the application of Tourniquets (2017) for the first time brings civilian protocols in line with established and proven military protocols.(1)
There is no doubt that tourniquets provide an effective means to stop 'catastrophic haemorrhage' - serious bleeding wounds to the extent that death is imminent due to blood loss. There is also evidence to support the negative consequences of inappropriate or prolonged use of tourniquets, including nerve damage, tissue death and circulatory complications.
The obvious concern is tissue damage due to a loss of circulation. Continuous application for longer than 2 hours can result in permanent nerve injury, muscle injury, vascular injury and skin necrosis. Muscle damage is nearly complete by 6 hours (2-6).
The more sinister - and less known - issue is compartment syndrome; a serious condition which can affect both life and limb. Raised pressure within the compartment such as the arm, leg or any enclosed space within the body and leads to nerve damage because of the lack of blood supply. Prolonged or inappropriate use of a tourniquet can lead to compartment syndrome, especially if venous blood flow is impeded but not arterial, thereby allowing arterial blood into an area but not allowing venous return. (7-12)
Reperfusion injury is tissue damage caused when blood supply returns to the tissue after a period of ischemia or lack of oxygen. The absence of oxygen and nutrients from blood during the ischemic period creates a condition in which the restoration of circulation results in inflammation and oxidative damage through the induction of oxygen rather than restoration of normal function. (13-14)
A policy of periodic loosening of a tourniquet in an attempt to reduce limb ischaemia has often led to incremental exsanguination and death. (15)
A properly applied tourniquet is painful; a casualty may require significant pain relief to apply the tourniquet to the appropriate pressure.
And this is the crux of the argument; tourniquets are effective and appropriate but only if their use is warranted and the person applying the tourniquets understands what they are doing, how to do it and why.
Related article: Duty of Care and The Law
Rationale for Tourniquet use in a civilian setting
Despite the relative low incidence of catastrophic haemorrhage from limb injury in a civilian setting there are occasions where the use of a tourniquet is warranted:
The risks of hypovolaemic shock greatly outweigh the potential damage to the limb beyond the point of tourniquet application in the case of an amputation. (1)
High-hazard settings such as industrial environments experience similar injuries to those seen in hostile environment; principally traumatic amputation and blast injuries.
Mass casualty incidents such as industrial accidents and terrorist attacks result in multiple casualties with serious limb injuries without the resources to treat all casualties with direct pressure.
A casualty with multiple injuries, including serious bleeding limb injuries may be effectively managed by the immediate application of a tourniquet as a temporary measure to stop bleeding whilst Airway and Breathing are assessed and managed. Following successful management of the Airway and Breathing, the tourniquet may be removed under the assessment of Circulation where the bleeding wounds may be more appropriately treated with more basic measures. (1)
Where a casualty is trapped and direct pressure may not be applied to the limb injury because of lack of access a tourniquet may be appropriate as the only remaining method of controlling the bleed. (16)
Principles of Tourniquet Application
If it is deemed necessary to apply a tourniquet either because the necessity of the situation dictates or because the simple measures are not sufficient; it is imperative that the tourniquet is applied appropriately.
- Use a dedicated tourniquet if one is available - if not, improvise:
Improvised tourniquets have been proven to be as effective if not more so than some prefabricated devices. The issue with improvised tourniquets is that, by definition, there are variations in their constructions, application and overall effectiveness. (17)
- The design of any tourniquet improvised or otherwise requires a broad band to provide adequate compression. (18)
- The tourniquet should be applied onto bare skin to prevent slipping.
- The tourniquet can be applied on single or double bone compartments.
Traditional teaching has avoided placement of a tourniquet over a double bone compartment (lower leg or lower arm) as the twin bones in these areas may protect the blood vessels from adequate compression from a tourniquet. Although there is little evidence to contradict this theory, recent anecdotal evidence from Iraq and Afghanistan challenge it. (1, 19)
- The tourniquet should be applied just above the injury. (1)
- The tourniquet can be applied ‘high and tight’ as an interim measure.
In a multi-casualty, time critical setting it is reasonable to apply the first tourniquet 'high and tight' over clothing until a more considered assessment and reapplication may be considered. In these cases, review of the placement should be considered when possible with a view to re applying a tourniquet closer to the wound prior to releasing the initial higher placed one to ensure haemorrhage control is maintained. (1)
- Tighten the strap fully before tightening the windlass.
- The tourniquet should be tightened until bleeding stops. (1)
- If it is ineffective the tourniquet should be tightened or repositioned.
- The application of a second tourniquet (applied above the first) may be required
- Slight oozing at the wound site may occur due to some blood flow from the exposed medullary bone end. (1)
- Write the Time and Date on the tourniquet and mark the casualty with a T on their cheek (easier to see than on the forehead if they are wearing a helmet and more likely to remain clear because of less sweat).
- The time and date of the tourniquet application should be mentioned in the communication and handover. Any casualty who has a tourniquet applied is classed a "1 - Immediate" on any triage sieve.
When necessity dictates, improvised tourniquets should be used, and have been found to be as effective as prefabricated tourniquets. (17) The same principles of tourniquet application apply but consideration should be made to the materials used; a belt is often thought of as a good improvised tourniquet, being strong but they are too stiff to apply effectively. A triangular bandage, tie or shoulder strap from a bag would be a better consideration being easier to handle and apply effectively.
Releasing the Tourniquet
If tourniquet has been applied as an interim measure due to multiple injuries or because of limited resources, there may be merit in 'downgrading' the treatment for serious bleeding under Circulation of the ABC protocol or once the situation has been managed, other injuries have been stabilised or after additional resources have been sourced.
The tourniquet may be downgraded if it was hastily applied ‘High and tight’. (1)
Releasing the tourniquet once the casualty has been stabilised will, theoretically, avoid or limit the complications of prolonged use of a tourniquet, listed above. Alternatively, after a period of time of reduced arterial flow from tourniquet use, clotting may have occurred sufficiently, allowing simpler methods of haemorrhage control to be effective
- Visualise the whole limb to assess for additional bleeding wounds.
- Place the new, distal, tourniquet 5 cm from the highest wound.
- Apply the tourniquet tightly.
- Release the proximal tourniquet, observing the wound. If bleeding continues, tighten the distal tourniquet until bleeding stops.
- Continue to release the proximal tourniquet, observing the wound for bleeding.
The tourniquet should remain in place if (10):
- The transit time to definitive care is less than one hour.
- The casualty has other life threatening injuries.
- The casualty has unstable vital signs.
Before release of the tourniquet secure wound packing / haemostatic and application of direct pressure.
If careful release of the tourniquet then results in a return of uncontrollable external haemorrhage, the tourniquet should be replaced and not removed until the patient is in the operating theatre.
Military medics and Emergency Services personnel should follow their current protocols regarding the release of tourniquets.
Tourniquets are an effective method of controlling serious bleeding which may not otherwise be controlled by simple measures but only if applied effectively.
The greatest risk of serious complications are due to inappropriately or incorrectly applied tourniquets, not the tourniquet per se.
Tourniquets can be removed or relocated if:
- The casualty DOES NOT have an amputation and
- Dangers at the scene have been stabilised and
- Bleeding has stopped and
- The casualty’s vital signs are normal and stable and
- Transfer time to definitive care is greater than one hour
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