Episode 70: Airway evaluation for non-anesthesiologists, with Jed Wolpaw

We discuss assessing patients prior to intubation or other airway management, including both elective and emergent circumstances, with Dr. Jed Wolpaw, anesthesiologist and intensivist from Johns Hopkins, anesthesiology residency program director, and host of the ACCRAC podcast.

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Takeaway lessons

  1. Edentulous (toothless) patients are usually easier to intubate, but harder to mask ventilate. Heavy beards are harder to mask (can you trim it, or cover it with a Tegaderm?), larger neck circumferences, and larger tongues likewise.
  2. Consider the history, particularly involving the head and neck anatomy. Is there surgical history here? Jaw or oral surgery? Prior trachs or oral/neck radiation? Rheumatoid arthritis or Down syndrome (which can cause atlanto-occipital instability and may warrant trying to limit any forced neck extension)?
  3. Start by looking into the patient’s mouth (mouth open, sitting up, no “aah”):
    • Mallampati score (do you see the entire uvula, part of it, soft palate, or hard palate only?)
    • How is the dentition? Remove dentures if present. Are there loose teeth?
    • Is there an excess of soft tissue in the mouth (large tongue, etc)?
  4. Evaluate the thyromental distance (thyroid bump to chin); <3 cm (or fingerwidths) suggests a more “anterior” airway.
  5. Evaluate neck flexion and extension (passively if necessary) to appreciate limitations in neck mobility.
  6. If the patient is able, evaluate how well the jaw can protrude/prognath: ability to bite more of the upper lip with the lower teeth is a good thing. This is probably the single most predictive test for airway difficult, although it usually requires patient cooperation.
  7. Review the chart (or ask the patient) for prior documentation of intubation or anesthesia to determine if they have a history of a difficult airway. This can require some interpretation of the context and who was intubating previously. Good practice when documenting: write exactly what you did, and if it was difficult, write why! If you used a technique like awake intubation, a bougie, etc for elective or training reasons, document that reason so they don’t earn a label of a difficult airway forever.
  8. The STOP-BANG score is used to predict post-anesthesia airway obstruction (i.e. OSA), and probably has some association with faster deoxygenation and difficult mask ventilation, but is generally not super relevant for intubation.
  9. A patient with any concern for difficult intubation warrants consideration for factors also contributing to difficult LMA placement or cricothyrotomy. LMAs are difficult to place when the mouth opening is very small (about 2 inches) or the oral-laryngeal anatomy is unusual, and crics are difficult when the neck anatomy is impossible (eg a superimposed tumor, goiter, or heavily distorted anatomy). A patient who cannot have a cric may warrant an awake intubation to avoid the risk of inducing a patient who cannot be rescued.
  10. Obesity is not a predictor of anatomically difficult intubation. Mask ventilation may be a little harder if there is increased oropharyngeal soft tissue. It is a predictor of physiologic difficulty (faster desat), though.
  11. For emergent intubations: confirm code status, briefly evaluate the head/neck/mouth, use video laryngoscopy. Use hemodynamically stable agents for induction and reduce the dose, and ensure the team knows to subsequently sedate any patient who received a long-acting paralytic. Have a vasopressor drip ready, or better yet, running. Always set up everything and be prepared for every eventuality before you take away a patient’s ability to breathe.
  12. Either RSI with paralytics, or perform awake intubation. Otherwise, never RSI the critically ill without neuromuscular blockade, which will reliably reduce your chances of success. Short-acting paralytics (succinylcholine) are brief—i.e. not much longer than the apneic period of a short-acting sedative—and long-acting paralytics (eg rocuronium) can be reversed with suggamedex, in the rare situations where letting the patient wake up and resume breathing is a smart move.
  13. The one exception might be a ketamine-only intubation, which generally keeps the patient breathing, allowing you to either proceed to paralyzing or not depending on what you see, or maybe allow them to wake up.
  14. While it’s nice if an emergent intubation has been NPO, it probably won’t change your technique; changes in gut motility in the critically ill mean almost anybody can have stomach contents. Treat most ICU patients as if they have a full stomach, i.e. RSI. The one exception: the PREVENT trial showed that mask ventilation during induction (usually a no-no for RSI) of critically ill patients does not increase aspiration risk and does reduce hypoxemia, so should probably usually be done.
  15. In the highest aspiration risk patients like SBO or upper GI bleeding, keep the head of bed elevated, ensure ample/multiple suctions catheters, and be ready/willing to intubate the esophagus intentionally with your ETT and place it to suction to divert the stomach contents while you use a fresh ETT to intubate the glottis. Placing an NG beforehand to decompress the stomach is hit or miss as it can induce vomiting; it works better in a fully awake patient (who can manage any vomiting).
  16. We should probably still learn and teach direct laryngoscopy, but do so using a video scope with regular-geometry blade.


  1. PREVENT trial

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