The Multi-Trauma

This hot case typically takes the shape of a tertiary survey.

According to, "The tertiary trauma survey is defined by the ACS as a patient evaluation that identifies and catalogues all injuries after the initial resuscitation and operative intervention".

It involves the repetition of the primary and secondary surveys.

Previous hot cases with this sort of theme to them can be found below.

Examination of the Critically Ill Multi-Trauma Patient

The standard introduction

  • The examiner will give you a history.

The prelude to the dance

  • Wash hands.
  • Gown and glove.
  • Ask, if relevant:
    • "Can I turn on all the lights?"
    • "Are there any movement restrictions? Can I sit them up, or roll them on their side?"
    • "Is there a language barrier?"
  • Introduce yourself: “Hi Mr or Mrs Bloggs, I’m Dr So-and-so. I’m going to examine you.”

The Monitors

  • Rhythm
  • Rate
  • Morphology: QRS width,
  • MAP and abnormal morphology of the arterial waveform
  • CVP and abnormal morphology of the CVP waveform
  • Ancillary waveforms eg. the PA catheter waveform
  • Oxygen saturation measurement, and the quality of the waveform
  • End-tidal CO2 waveform and level

The Ventilator

One can ask the examiners the following questions:

  • How are we oxygenating this patient?
  • How are we ventilating this patient?

One should ask about the following parameters:

  • FIO2
  • PEEP
  • Peak pressure
  • Plateau pressure
  • Tidal volume and minute volume

One should ask to look at the pressure-volume loops.

A decreased lung compliance might suggest pneumothorax, or pulmonary contusions.

Urine catheter

  • Unusual colour
  • Anuria
  • Haematuria
  • Tea-coloured urine of rhabdomyolysis

Drains (surgical, intercostal, etc)

There may be surgical drains (what is in them? How much of it?). Asking how much has been coming out may be relevant in a hot case which focuses on the diagnosis of a shock state.

The pleural catheters are also interesting. One should make a mental note of whether the ICCs are on free drainage or on suction. The content of these drains could be informative, especially if one notices blood or chyle.


A CVVHDF or SLEDD process may be in progress. The savvy candidate may wish to ask the following questions:

  • Which modality is being used?
  • What is the dose of dialysis?
  • What is the rate of fluid removal?
  • How is the circuit anticoagulated?
  • How long has this filter lasted?

The CRRT may be used to maage


This stage is critically important. The drug and fluid infusions which are currently in progress give a clue as to what problem is currently being addressed. One should not neglect the labelled bags; the choice of antibiotics gives one some idea of where the source of sepsis is thought to be.

Specifically, one should focus on blood products and evidence of rescue osmotherapy for raised ICP (eg. hypertonic saline or mannitol).


One should observe the following features of an EVD:

  • Set height
  • Whether it is open or closed
  • The CSF colour - eg. is it full of blood?

The physical examination

Expose and observe

Ideally, one should get the patient sitting up to 30-45°. This may not be possible. However, one should still ask for it.

Ideally, the patient should be exposed from the waist up. The candidate can then stand back and look for anything externally obvious:

  • Skin colour, eg. jaundice or the discolouration of chronic renal failure
  • Muscle wasting, obesity
  • The evidence of trauma, wound dressings, etc
  • The pattern of breathing (eg. whether there is a characteristic chest flail)
  • All obvious injuries


Performing the GCS should be the first step, unless you notice that a neuromuscular junction blocker is among the infusions. The level of consciousness then determines how you go about examining the rest of the patient.

A traditionalist, who is examining Mr Bloggs, would approach the GCS in the following manner:

  • Grab hold of both of the patient's hands.
  • "Mr Bloggs!" One pauses to observe for eye opening.
  • "Can you squeeze my hands?"
  • If hand squeezing and eye opening is not observed, one administers a painful nail bed stimulus to both hands, to observe the response to pain.

Hands, nail signs, pulse and the arterial line.

One has just performed a GCS assessment; one is still holding the hands.

Now, time to look at them more closely.

First, one should spent a second assessing whether they are warm or cold.

Then, one can spend a moment on the nails. Nail signs are numerous and deserve their own page. This should not be a prolonged scrutiny.

Assess the pulse. While one still has both of the patient's hands, one ought to try to compare the radial pulses. An aortic dissection may result in a radioradial delay, or an asymmetrical pulse amplitude.


Tone of the upper limbs

Move up from the hands. While you are still holding the hands, you can perform a sort of gross examination of tone by pronating and supinating the wrists, and by flexing and extending the elbows.

Ask the examiners whether this is appropriate before going ahead- one does not want to be testing the tone of a multiply fractured limb.

Cubital fossa

Examine the cubital fossa for

  • Peripheral lines, rapid infuser sheaths
  • Evidence of multiple venepunctures
  • Lymph nodes
  • Brachial pulse
  • The presence of an obvious AV fistula

One should then palpate the axillary lymph nodes.

The Neck

  • Inspect any central lines
  • Look again at the CVP
  • The C-spine collar may still be present. One might ask to have it removed, so that one can inspect the neck (but they won't let you).

Palpate the neck:

  • Trachea: is it midline? Is there a new tracheostomy there?
  • Thyroid gland
  • Cervical lymph nodes
  • Carotid pulse - one side at a time!
  • Submandibular lymph nodes
  • Pre- and post-auricular lymph nodes

Pupils and the higher cranial nerves

One should take a moment to inspect the head for injuries.

If there are any head injuries, particularly features of a base of skull fracture, the candidate should examine the cranial nerves with as much detail as possible.

Thus, this section can be divided into three broad groups:

The paralysed patient The unconscious patient The awake patient

Visual acuity

A Snellen chart is ideal, but probably will not be available.

The extubated patient should be able to read the time on the clock in the room.

One performs this test with each eye individually.

This tests CN II.

Light reflex

Ask the examiners to dim the room lights.

Open both eyes. Each eye is exposed to light. The opposite pupil should constrict consensually.

This tests CN II (afferent) and CN III (efferent).

Corneal reflex

The cornea (not the sclera) is touched lightly with a moistened corner of a piece of gauze.

A normal reflex is to blink.

This tests CN V (afferent) and CN VII (efferent)

Eye movements

The conscious patient will be able to follow the tip of the candidate's finger.

The pattern of movements should be tracing the six cardinal points: superior left, inferior left, superior center, inferior center, superior right, inferior right.

This tests CNs II, IV and VI.

Facial pain sensation

Typically, this is performed by putting some pressure on the superior orbital notch.

The patient should either open their eyes or localise.

This tests CN V.

Facial movements

The conscious patient will be able to perform a series of grimaces to assess the bilateral motor control of facial muscles:

  • Raise eyebrows to wrinkle forehead
  • Squint eyes to assess periorbital muscles
  • Bare teeth to assess nasolabial muscles
  • Blow out cheeks

Oculocephalic reflex

In the comatose patient, as the head is moved from left to right, the eyes should move in the opposite direction. A fixed unchanging gaze is a negative test; the reflex is not working.

This tests CNs III, IV, VI, and most importantly VIII.

Cold caloric reflex

Cold water is funneled into the patient's ear. A positive reflex consists of the eyes turning towards the chilled ear. This is a more potent stimulus for CN VIII than the oculocephalic reflex.

Airway and the lower cranial nerves

Now that one has finished with the upper cranial nerves, one can move on to the mouth, airway, and swallowing apparatus.

Gag reflex

The Yankeur sucker is used to probe the posterior pharynx, on both sides. A gag reaction should result from this.

This collectively tests CN X and IX.

Cough reflex

While on the subject of CN X, one may test the cough reflex by suctioning the trachea.

This tests CN X.

This is also a convenient time to ask about the volume and character of the secretions.

Tongue movements

The conscious patient is asked to protrude their tongue, and move it from side to side.

This tests CN XII.

Uvula deviation

The uvula deviates away from the lesion.

This tests CN X and IX.

Shoulder shrug

The conscious patient is asked to shrug their shoulders against resistance.

This tests CN XI.

Thus, the whole process should look like this:

  • Ask the patient to read the time in the room (or similar)
  • Ask the examiners to dim the room lights. Open both eyes and test the light reflex and consensual pupillary constriction.
  • Test the corneal reflex with a moistened gauze piece.
  • Test eye movements by asking the patient to follow your fingertip with their eyes.
  • Test for facial pain sensation
  • Ask the patient to grimace: raise eyebrows, squint eyes, bare teeth, blow out cheeks.
  • Test the oculocephalic and/or cold caloric reflex in the comatose patient.
  • Test the gag reflex with the sucker.
  • Test the cough reflex by suctioning the trachea.
  • Open the patient's mouth, and look for a deviated uvula.
  • Ask the patient to stick out their tongue and move it from side to side.
  • Ask the patient to shrug their shoulders.

During the cranial nerve examination, one will inevitably end up tripping over the endotracheal tube. One should note whether there is anything unusual there; for instance, is there a dual-lumen tube, or a bronchial blocker?

Chest palpation, percussion and auscultation


One puts both their hands on the chest to assess the symmetry of chest expansion.

The whole chest must be palpated.The crepitus of subcutaneous emphysema cannot be missed. Plus, one needs to find the flail segment, if there is one.


One might wish to percuss the chest.

Changes in percussion resonance may be worth commenting on.


One may begin by auscultating the apices anteriorly. Then, one should auscultate as posteriorly as possible. The money is in the bases.

Palpation and auscultation of the praecordium


The clever candidate will make a big show of palpating both the apex and the right sternal edge.


One should auscultate in the following sequence:

  • Apex
  • Left sternal edge, lower
  • Left sternal edge, upper
  • Right sternal edge, lower
  • Left sternal edge, upper
  • Both carotids

The various clicks and murmurs one encounters are discussed elsewhere.

Abdominal palpation, percussion and auscultation

For this, one should ask to lay the patient flat.

Abdominal observation

  • Take a moment to behold the abdomen. One may ask the examiners to look under any surgical dressings; one is likely to be denied this part of the examination (they will tell you the wound looks clean and dry).

Abdominal palpation

  • All quadrants should be palpated.
  • Then, feel for the liver edge; observe respiratory excursion
  • Then, feel for the spleen.
  • Then, try to ballot the kidneys. Enquire about renal tenderness.

Abdominal percussion

  • This can double as a test for peritonism.
  • If there is some suspicion of ascites, one may ask to roll the patient, so shifting dullness can be better appreciated. The examiners may not permit this test.

Abdominal auscultation

  • One should spend a good length of time on this, if one suspects bowel obstruction or ileus.

Examination of the pelvis and groins

The pelvic content would have been palpated during the abdominal examination.

The more important part of this examination is the groin.

At this stage, the patient should be re-draped - cover them from the waist up, and uncover their legs.

Observation and palpation of the pelvis:

  • There may be a rash of thrush, or a groin haematoma, or an external fixation device.
  • The posterior pelvis and sacrum should ideally be palpated for pitting oedema.

Examination of the lines

  • One should take notice of anything going into or coming out of the femoral vessels.
  • There may be a vascath, a PiCCO catheter or some sort of angiography sheath. These are important clues. Why did this patient get an angiogram? Was there pelvic haemorrhage?

Examination of the genitals and rectum

  • A complete examination would call for the palpation of the testes, and a comment on their size. However, this may not be practical.One should at least comment on any sort of scrotal haematoma.
  • One should take note of any sort of waste management devices, eg. rectal tube, SPC or IDC.
  • One should definitely ask about performing a PR.
  • If one is forbidden from performing the PR, one should ask about the following features:
    • Anal sphincter tone
    • Size and quality of the prostate
    • Presence of melaena or hard stool

Once one is finished with the pelvis, one should cover it again, so that only the legs are sticking out.

Examination of the lower limbs

One should ask to remove TEDs and compression stockings.

  • One should observe whether the lower limbs are mottled, and whether they are of the same size (assymetrical swelling leads one to suspect lymphoedema or DVT)
  • One should palpate the larger muscles. Muscle swelling is an important feature of compartment syndrome. Additionally, one gets to appreciate the temperature difference between the limbs, which could be important in the assessment of peripheral vascular injury.
  • Pitting oedema should be palpated.

Leg muscle tone

The best way to test muscle tone is by holding the knee. Roll the knee gently to distract the patient; then try to lift it off the bed. In the presence of increased tone, the leg will remain straight and the whole thing will lift up; with normal or decreased tone, only the knee will bend

Calf tenderness

In the conscious patient, one might be able to assess whether a gentle calf squeeze produces the characteristic pain which suggests a DVT may be present.

This brings one to the feet, and to the beginning of the neurological examination.

Feet and the Babinsky reflex

The feet would have already been palpated to assess their temperature, and to look for pitting oedema.

Observation of the feet

One should look specifically for changes suggestive of chronic diabetic foot disease, or chronically poor vascular supply.

Palpation of the feet

This should consist of palpating the dorsalis pedis and posterior tibial pulse.

Babinsky reflex

One should test the Babinsky bilaterally.


One should attempt to assess clonus in both feet.

Power in the lower limbs

Now is the time to properly start the neurological examination of this patient.

Power of the muscle groups may be tested in the following sequence:

  • Ankle dorsi and plantarflexion
  • Knee flexion and extension
  • Hip flexion, extension, adduction and abduction.

Power in the upper limbs

The patient has spent most of this time flat and supine. Time to sit them back up again.

Power of the upper muscle groups may be tested in the following sequence:

  • Hand grip
  • Wrist dorsiflexion/palmarflexion
  • Elbow flexion/extension
  • Shoulder adduction / abduction

Reflex testing

Now that one is back to the upper limb, one may as well start their reflex tests there.

The reflexes may be tested in the following order:

  • Brachioradialis
  • Biceps
  • Triceps
  • Knee jerk
  • Ankle jerk

Sensory testing

After testing the ankle jerk reflex, one is again back to the feet.

At this stage, with a conscious patient, one may wish to test light touch sensation.

The following order (with corresponding dermatomes) is suggested:

  • Sole of the foot (S1)
  • Lateral lower leg (L5)
  • Medial lower leg (L4)
  • Medial knee (L3)
  • Anterior upper quads (L2)
  • Umbilicus (T10)
  • Nipple level (T5)
  • Medial forearm (T1)
  • Pinky finger (C8)
  • Middle finger (C7)
  • Thumb (C6)
  • Lateral forearm (C5)
  • Posterior shoulder (C4)

The measured observations

Ask to see the obs chart. If it is not allowed, ask for the following:

  • Trends of blood pressure and heart rate
  • Temperature
  • Drain output - very important for chest drains!
  • Urine output

One may also wish do demonstrate an interest in the trends of any sort of advanced haemodynamic monitoring, eg. cardiac index as measured by PAC or PiCCO

The laboratory investigations

One needs to show an interest in the following labs:

  • ABG
  • Routine bloods - particularly, coags and FBC
  • Urinalysis
  • Culture results
  • CK, troponin, LFTs, pancreatic enzymes, inflammatory markers...

Imaging and other investigations

One should always ask for the following:

  • ECG
  • CXR

You sometimes want to see the following:

  • CSF analysis
  • CT or MRI results


Case presentation and discussion

"Mr Bloggs is suffering from multiple traumatic injuries. "

"In my survey, I have found the following injuries: [insert clinical findings here]"

"I would like to confirm my diagnosis with the following investigations: [insert appropriate investigations]"

"The current management issues are as follows: [a brief list of management priorities]"

"I would approach the management of these issues in the following manner: [list of management strategies; it helps to organise this into an A,B,C,D,E approach if one has a complex multisystem problem to manage]"

Number of previous hot cases in this topic: 21

2015, Paper 2

Unspecified hospital in Adelaide

26-year-old male, day 4 ICU following a high-speed motorcycle accident. On presentation there was no sensation below the waist. Clinical findings included the presence of a tachycardia, left below-knee amputation, right external fixator, dark urine with an IVC filter and would not obey commands.

Candidates were directed to assess him and make a management plan.

Discussion points included weaning of sedation and ventilation and the role of DVT prophylaxis.

2015, Paper 1

Unspecified hospital in Melbourne

A 34 - year - old with multi - trauma following a five storey fall onto a car, with respiratory failure and unstable haemodynamics. The patient had chest and spinal inju ries and an unstable pelvic fracture awaiting surgical fixation. Candidates were asked to examine him and describe why his haemodynamics were problematic.

2014, paper 2

Unspecified hospital in Sydney

  • 27-year-old female, day 3 ICU with multi-trauma following motor vehicle crash. Her injuries included traumatic brain injury and raised ICP with bilateral SAH and basal ganglia and intra-parenchymal haemorrhage, blunt chest trauma with right-sided contusion, rib fractures and pneumothorax, liver laceration and multiple facial and limb abrasions. Findings on examination included Codman catheter, right ICC, sandbags supporting C-spine, large scalp abrasion with degloving and extensive skin abrasions.
  • Candidates were asked to perform a secondary survey, describe the findings and outline the likely clinical problems.

Unspecified hospital in Sydney

  • 78-year-old female, day 2 in the ICU, with a left haemothorax following a recent fall. Clinical findings included intubated and ventilated, left intercostal catheters with 700ml of blood, multiple previous AV fistulae, currently on CVVHDF, multiple bruises, left leg splinted. Chest x-ray demonstrated persistent left haemothorax.
  • Candidates were asked to assess the patient with regards to the contributors to her current clinical state and make a plan for ongoing management.
2013, paper 2

Westmead Hospital

  • 33-year-old male, day 17 ICU, admitted with haemorrhagic shock from multiple stab wounds, including liver laceration and perforated bowel. Clinical findings included decreased bibasal breath sounds, moderate oedema, polyuria, open abdomen with VAC dressing and the presence of a tracheostomy. Candidates were asked to examine him, identify the current issues and formulate a management plan. Other discussion points included management of weaning and nutritional support.

Liverpool Hospital

  • 17-year-old male admitted overnight with multi-trauma from a motor vehicle crash. Clinical findings included an intubated but responsive patient with a laparotomy wound, painful hip/pelvis, seat belt marks and a dressing over his left knee. Candidates were told that he had been admitted overnight following a motor vehicle crash with GCS 13, hypotension, tachycardia and a positive FAST and underwent a splenectomy, and were asked to perform a tertiary survey. Discussion points included cervical spine clearance and management of the post-splenectomy patient.
2013, Paper 1

Royal Adelaide Hospital

  • 24-year-old man, day 17 in ICU, multi-trauma and PEA arrest following 20m fall and new-onset sepsis. Injuries included traumatic brain injury, carotid dissection, chest and abdominal trauma. Candidates were asked to examine him and identify the current clinical concerns.

Royal Adelaide Hospital

  • 69-year-old man, day 13 in ICU, following multi-trauma with neck and chest injuries, complicated by NSTEMI requiring percutaneous coronary intervention, nosocomial sepsis and failed extubation. Candidates were asked to examine him and suggest a plan for progress.
2012, Paper 2

Royal Melbourne Hospital

  • 20-year-old male post motor vehicle crash with polytrauma including facial, chest and lower limb injuries. Clinical findings included facial fractures and eye injury, surgical above knee amputation right leg, fever and agitation. Candidates were asked to identify the injuries and discuss a management plan.

Royal Melbourne Hospital

  • 48-year-old male post high speed motor vehicle crash with traumatic brain injury, chest, abdominal and skeletal injuries. Clinical signs included poor neurological recovery off sedation. Candidates were asked to identify his injuries and assess his neurological prognosis.
2011, Paper 2

St George Hospital

  • 71-year-old female with multi-trauma following pedestrian versus car. Candidates were directed to assess patient and make a management plan

Royal North Shore Hospital

  • 48-year-old man with multi-trauma following motorbike crash with chest and intra-abdominal injuries
2011, Paper 1

Liverpool Hospital

  • Male polytrauma, pedestrian versus car, unstable cervical and thoracic spine fractures, splenectomy and open book pelvic fractures with external fixation.

Liverpool Hospital

  • Male polytrauma secondary to MVA, fractured ribs, splenic rupture, long bone injuries and open book pelvic fracture awaiting fixation.

Liverpool Hospital

  • Male polytrauma secondary to MVA, car versus tree, bilateral SAH, facial fractures, chest injuries, fractured thoracic and lumbar vertebrae. Failed intubation secondary to facial injuries requiring urgent tracheostomy.
2010, Paper 2

Royal Adelaide Hospital

  • 63 year old patient admitted following an MVA with severe thoracic injuries. Topics for discussion included EMST principles, flail chest, damage control surgery, DVT prophylaxis and ventilatory wean.
2010, Paper 1

Alfred Hospital

  • A young man in a MVA, severe TBI and also had a vascular injury to the lower limbs and had ischemic rhabdomyolysis and associated pelvic injuries. Candidates asked to examine patients and formulate a plan.
2009, Paper 2

Royal Prince Alfred Hospital

  • A 61 year old lady admitted following an MVA. Current issues: Traumatic brain injury, pelvic lumbar and LL fractures, renal impairment with single kidney, persistently low Hb, rising Na.
2009, paper 1

Royal Brisbane Hospital

  • 47 year old man, brought in after an MVA. Has a T11 fracture, tear drop fracture C2 and an aortic injury. Candidates were asked to assess general examination, neurological state and outline plan of management.
    • Cause of weakness
    • Noscomial pneumonia
    • Criteria for extubation
    • DVT prophylaxis in acute phase

Areas of weakness identified by examiners: 

  • Poor general neurological examination
  • Could not clearly articulate criteria for extubation
  • Missed the presence of a pneumonia
  • Failure to have a DVT prophylaxis plan

Princess Alexandra Hospital

  • Multitrauma
    °  Resuscitation from shock
    °  Uncleared C-spine
    °  Evidence of large arterial sheath femoral artery suggestive of angiogram +/- embolisation
    °  CT scan – interpretation
    °  ABG – mixed respiratory and metabolic acidosis

    Areas of weakness identified by examiners: 

    °  Several candidates missed a large arterial sheath and failed to identify the possibility of an angiogram +/-embolisation
    °  Inability to perform a clear neurological examination
    °  Patient had a clear pericardial sound, missed by a number of candidates.
    °  Candidates did not recognise a ruptured spleen on CT.
2008, Paper 2

Unspecified hospital

  • A 42 yr old female following an MVA and chest trauma. Patient presented with hypotension and respiratory difficulty. Candidates asked to assess cardio respiratory system.