Background: Subclavian and axillary vascular injuries are notorious for their mortality and their difficult surgical exposure. In the present study we analyze our experience with 79 patients and describe the techniques used for surgical access to these vessels. Study Design: Retrospective review of the medical records of all patients with penetrating injuries to the subdavian or axillary vessels who had been admitted to 2 Los Angeles trauma centers during a 4-year, 3-month period. Results: Seventy-nine patients were admitted during the study period January 1993 to March 1997 (58 gunshot injuries, 21 other penetrating injuries). The artery was injured in 59 patients and the vein in 40 (20 patients had both arterial and venous injuries). Eighteen patients (23%) were admitted with no signs of life or were in extremis and underwent an emergency room thoracotomy without any survivors. Fifty-eight patients underwent exploration in the operating room, 1 patient with an arteriovenous subclavian fistula was successfully managed with a radiologically placed endovascular stent, and 2 patients with minimal subclavian artery injuries were managed nonoperatively. Overall mortality was 34.2%. Excluding the ER thoracotomies the overall mortality was 14.8%. The mortality for isolated arterial injuries was 20.5%, for isolated venous injuries 50%, and for both vessels 45.0%. The mortality in venous injuries was significantly higher than in arterial injuries (p <0.05). The standard clavicular incision provided adequate exposure in 32 (50.0%) of the operating room cases. In the other 50% of operating room cases a combination of a clavicular incision with a median sternotomy or thoracotomy was necessary. Proximal subclavian injuries may be accessed through a clavicular incision combined with a median sternotomy irrespective of left or right site location. Conclusions: Subclavian and axillary vascular injuries remain lethal. A clavicular incision provides satisfactory surgical exposure in about half the patients. In patients with proximal injuries addition of a median sternotomy provides adequate surgical access in both right and left subdavian vessels.
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