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Radiol Med. 2000 Sep;100(3):139-44.

[Application of spiral computerized tomography in the study of traumatic lesions of the thoracic aorta].

[Article in Italian]

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Unità Operativa di Radiologia I, Dipartimento di Diagnostica per Immagini, Ospedale Maggiore, Azienda Unità Sanitaria Locale, Bologna.



Acute thoracic aortic injuries account for up to 10-20% of fatalities in high-speed deceleration road accidents and have an estimated immediate fatality rate of 80-90%. Untreated survivors to acute trauma (10-20%) have a dismal prognosis: 30% of them die within 6 hours, 40-50% die within 24 hours, and 90% within 4 months. We investigated the diagnostic accuracy of Helical Computed Tomography (Helical CT) in acute traumatic injuries of the thoracic aorta, and the role of this technique in the diagnostic management of trauma patients with a strong suspicion of aortic rupture.


We compared retrospectively the chest Helical CT findings of 256 trauma patients examined June 1995 through August 1999. All patients underwent a plain chest radiograph in supine recumbency when admitted to the Emergency Room. Chest Helical CT examinations were performed according to trauma score, to associated traumatic lesions and to plain chest radiographic findings. All the examinations were performed with no intravenous contrast agent administration and the pitch 2 technique. After a previous baseline study, contrast-enhanced scans were acquired with pitch 1 in 87 patients. All examinations were assessed for the presence of mediastinal hematoma, periaortic hematoma, traumatic pseudodiverticulum, irregular aortic wall or contour and intimal flap as signs of aortic rupture.


Helical CT showed thoracic aortic lesions in 9 of 256 patients examined. In all the 9 cases we found a mediastinal hematoma and all of them had positive plain chest radiographic findings of mediastinal enlargement. Moreover, in 6 cases aortic knob blurring was also evident on plain chest film and in 5 cases depressed left mainstem bronchus and trachea deviation rightwards were observed. All aortic lesions were identified on axial scans and located at the isthmus of level. Aortic rupture was always depicted as pseudodiverticulum of the proximal descending tract and intimal flap. We also found periaortic hematoma in 6 cases and intramural hematoma in 1 case. There were no false positive results in our series: 7 patients with Helical CT diagnosis of aortic rupture were submitted to conventional aortography that confirmed both type and extension of the lesions as detected by Helical CT, and all findings were confirmed by gross inspection at surgery. No false negative results have been recorded so far: untreated aortic ruptures are fatal within 4 months in 90% of patients, or they may evolve into chronic pseudoaneurysm in about 5% of survivors.


In our experience Helical CT had much higher diagnostic sensitivity and specificity than plain chest radiography. In agreement with larger published series, in our small one the diagnostic accuracy of Helical CT was 100% in the evaluation of traumatic aortic ruptures. Moreover, Helical CT is faster and less invasive than conventional aortography, which makes this diagnostic modality increasingly used and markedly improves the management of the serious trauma patient. The more widespread use of this diagnostic tool has permitted to standardize the technique and now Helical CT can be used not only as a screening modality for patients that undergo digital aortography, but also as a reliable diagnostic method for surgical planning.

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