Using ultrasound to aid diagnosis of patients with a 'blunt' injury to the abdomen

Many people admitted to hospital after an injury have 'blunt' (not penetrating) damage to the abdomen. Doctors treating these patients need to know whether the organs within the abdomen have been injured. Ultrasound scans are believed to help diagnose the patient's condition. In this review, the authors looked for studies that compared death rates in patients with an abdominal injury where ultrasound was used to aid diagnosis with death rates where no ultrasound was used. They also looked for evidence that ultrasound use could reduce the need to carry out other more complex and more expensive diagnostic tests. However, very few trials have been done and the authors concluded that there is insufficient evidence to justify the use of ultrasound as part of the diagnosis of patients with abdominal injury. Given this degree of uncertainty, it is probably justified to ask doctors on duty for a confirmatory CT scan in patients who have sustained an injury with a high chance of major trauma (that is, head and brain injury, cervical spine fracture, thoraco-abdominal pelvic trauma, and other injuries).

Authors' conclusions: 

The experimental evidence justifying FAST-based clinical pathways in diagnosing patients with suspected abdominal or multiple blunt trauma remains poor. Because of strong heterogeneity between the trial results, the quantitative information provided by this review may only be used in an exploratory fashion. It is unlikely that FAST will ever be investigated by means of a confirmatory, large-scale RCT in the future. Thus, this Cochrane Review may be regarded as a review which provides the best available evidence for clinical practice guidelines and management recommendations. It can only be concluded from the few head-to-head studies that negative US scans are likely to reduce the incidence of MDCT scans which, given the low sensitivity of FAST (or reliability of negative results), may adversely affect the diagnostic yield of the trauma survey. At best, US has no negative impact on mortality or morbidity. Assuming that major blunt abdominal or multiple trauma is associated with 15% mortality and a CT-based diagnostic work-up is considered the current standard of care, 874, 3495, or 21,838 patients are needed per intervention group to demonstrate non-inferiority of FAST to CT-based algorithms with non-inferiority margins of 5%, 2.5%, and 1%, power of 90%, and a type-I error alpha of 5%.

Read the full abstract...

Ultrasonography (performed by means of a four-quadrant, focused assessment of sonography for trauma (FAST)) is regarded as a key instrument for the initial assessment of patients with suspected blunt abdominal and thoraco-abdominal trauma in the emergency department setting. FAST has a high specificity but low sensitivity in detecting and excluding visceral injuries. Proponents of FAST argue that ultrasound-based clinical pathways enhance the speed of primary trauma assessment, reduce the number of unnecessary multi-detector computed tomography (MDCT) scans, and enable quicker triage to surgical and non-surgical care. Given the proven accuracy, increasing availability of, and indication for, MDCT among patients with blunt abdominal and multiple injuries, we aimed to compile the best available evidence of the use of FAST-based assessment compared with other primary trauma assessment protocols.


To assess the effects of diagnostic algorithms using ultrasonography including in FAST examinations in the emergency department in relation to the early, late, and overall mortality of patients with suspected blunt abdominal trauma.

Search strategy: 

The most recent search was run on 30th June 2015. We searched the Cochrane Injuries Group Specialised Register, The Cochrane Library, MEDLINE (OvidSP), EMBASE (OvidSP), ISI Web of Science (SCI-EXPANDED, SSCI, CPCI-S, and CPSI-SSH), clinical trials registers, and screened reference lists. Trial authors were contacted for further information and individual patient data.

Selection criteria: 

We included randomised controlled trials (RCTs). Participants were patients with blunt torso, abdominal, or multiple trauma undergoing diagnostic investigations for abdominal organ injury. The intervention was diagnostic algorithms comprising emergency ultrasonography (US). The control was diagnostic algorithms without US examinations (for example, primary computed tomography (CT) or diagnostic peritoneal lavage (DPL)). Outcomes were mortality, use of CT or invasive procedures (DPL, laparoscopy, laparotomy), and cost-effectiveness.

Data collection and analysis: 

Two authors (DS and CG) independently selected trials for inclusion, assessed methodological quality, and extracted data. Methodological quality was assessed using the Cochrane Collaboration risk of bias tool. Where possible, data were pooled and relative risks (RRs), risk differences (RDs), and weighted mean differences, each with 95% confidence intervals (CIs), were calculated by fixed-effect or random-effects models as appropriate.

Main results: 

We identified four studies meeting our inclusion criteria. Overall, trials were of poor to moderate methodological quality. Few trial authors responded to our written inquiries seeking to resolve controversial issues and to obtain individual patient data. Strong heterogeneity amongst the trials prompted discussion between the review authors as to whether the data should or should not be pooled; we decided in favour of a quantitative synthesis to provide a rough impression about the effect sizes achievable with US-based triage algorithms. We pooled mortality data from three trials involving 1254 patients; the RR in favour of the FAST arm was 1.00 (95% CI 0.50 to 2.00). FAST-based pathways reduced the number of CT scans (random-effects model RD -0.52, 95% CI -0.83 to -0.21), but the meaning of this result was unclear.