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Facial Soft Tissue Trauma Clinical Presentation

  • Author: Daniel D Sutphin, MD; Chief Editor: Arlen D Meyers, MD, MBA  more...
Updated: Aug 17, 2015

Physical Examination

Systematically examine the face by means of visual inspection and palpation, starting superiorly with the scalp and the frontal bones and proceeding inferiorly and laterally. Inspect and note any obvious swellings, depressions, or ecchymosis. These indicate possible underlying bone fracture or hematoma. A formal evaluation of the cranial nerves with attention to ocular function, sensation, and facial mimetic motor function should be completed. Any gross soft tissue asymmetry may signify underlying nerve damage.

With palpation, determine the presence and location of any fractured bone fragments and dislodged or dislocated bony prominences; be sure to include the temporomandibular joint. Determining the presence of crepitus, tenderness, or stepoffs is essential. If possible, assess the sensorimotor functions of the face.

The following summarizes examination approaches and findings associated with injuries to specific areas of the face.

Scalp injuries

Because of the extensive blood supply of the scalp, the amount of bleeding present may not be proportionate to the size of the soft tissue injury. Hemorrhaging of the scalp often appears profuse and always heightens suspicion of intracranial damage. On the other hand, it is not uncommon for minor scalp injures to be missed as a result of an inadequate examination. To avoid missing any scalp injuries, examine patients thoroughly during the secondary survey.

After cleaning the wound, attempt hemostasis with direct pressure. Examine the areas around any lacerations for bony stepoff that would indicate a possible underlying skull fracture. Although shaving of hair is usually unnecessary, some shaving may be needed to avoid missing additional lacerations if obvious foreign body fragments are lodged in the hair or if the patient has long hair. However, adequate visualization of the wound is imperative, as is recognition that scalp wounds can be associated with large-volume blood loss that may even be fatal.[9]

Eyebrow injuries

Eyebrow injuries should direct the examiner’s attention toward the possibility of underlying fracture of the supraorbital ridge or frontal sinuses.

Inspect the orbital rim carefully, palpating it around its circumference. Subtle displacement of the rim may be identified by placing an index finger on each infraorbital rim and viewing from above or below with the patient’s head tilted back. If fractures of the underlying bony structures are present, plastic or maxillofacial surgical consultation should be sought and surgical repair of the overlying soft tissues completed depending upon specialist recommendation. Check carefully for any deficit in sensation in the area. Attempt to maintain the alignment of the brow borders during repair. Never shave the eyebrow, because this may result in significant cosmetic deformity; the brow may not grow back or may grow back with an abnormal pattern or color.

Eyelid injuries

Patients presenting with eyelid injuries must be examined thoroughly for any associated ocular and nasolacrimal duct injuries. Exploration for foreign bodies must be performed. Flip the eyelids over and examine the tarsal plate. Damage to either side of the tarsal plate should be referred to an ophthalmologist for repair. If ptosis is present, injury to the levator aponeurosis should be suspected, and this injury should also be referred to a plastic surgeon or ophthalmologist.

Simple lacerations of the eyelid, without involvement of the margins, can be treated without concern for further eye injury. If the protective function of the lid is compromised in any way, eye-threatening keratitis may result. Extensive or complex injuries of the eyelid, particularly those that involve the canthi, lacrimal system, or lid margin, should prompt immediate plastic surgical consultation.

Eye injuries

In patients who have sustained injury to the eye, look for any gross injury or asymmetry in the globes.[10, 11] Check the papillary responses to light directly and indirectly. Using an ophthalmoscope, inspect the anterior chamber to look for blood, rupture of the iris, or asymmetry. Examine the cornea, and look for foreign bodies, abrasions, tears, or lacerations. Fluorescein dye and tetracaine (or another topical ocular anesthetic) should be employed to ensure an adequate examination.

Assess extraocular movements. Deficits in movement may indicate entrapment or injury to one of the extraocular muscles. Deficits may also indicate injury to one of the nerves that control globe movement (cranial nerves [CNs] III, IV, and VI). Evaluate for conjugate gaze and smooth pursuit.

Assess visual acuity. Outside the clinical setting (eg, on the sideline or in the locker room at a sporting event), a handheld eye chart may be used for gross investigation. Significant loss of visual acuity may be due to injury of the globe, retina, or optic nerve or due to an injury that is more central. These injuries are an indication for more urgent ophthalmologic care than can be provided in such an environment, and the patient should be sent to the appropriate facility for definitive care.

In addition, evaluate the patient for enophthalmos or exophthalmos. These conditions indicate either an orbital floor fracture or a blow-in fracture, respectively. Such findings also warrant oculoplastic consultation.

Ear injuries

A direct blow or application of shearing force to the ear may result in tearing of the blood vessels at the level of the perichondrium. The result is a subperichondrial hematoma. These injuries can result in significant cosmetic deformity if missed or if not treated immediately. Fibrosis develops within 2 weeks of the injury, and the patient may be left with abnormally shaped pinnae (a condition also known as cauliflower ear).

Auricular hematoma and myriad ear lacerations of varying complexity, including ear amputation, should prompt plastic surgical consultation.

Blunt trauma or barotrauma may cause perforation of the tympanic membrane. An otoscope should be used to visualize the defect and to look for any serous or bloody discharge. Most patients are asymptomatic, but vertigo and otalgia may be present.

Nose injuries

Visual inspection of the nose usually provides ample information as to the underlying injury. Fracture is usually associated with some degree of deformity.[12] Gross midline deviation of the nose typically indicates underlying fractured nasal bones or cartilages. Soft tissue swelling of the nose indicates hematoma, fractured nasal bones or cartilages, or both. Intranasal inspection with a nasal speculum may reveal a deviated septum.

Nevertheless, epistaxis without obvious nasal deformity may be the only clinical finding in some nasal fractures. The origin of most nosebleeds is the extremely vascular area on the anterior septum (Kiesselbach area). Performing an adequate and thorough nasal examination is difficult when epistaxis is not controlled.

Once the bleeding is controlled, intranasal inspection using a nasal speculum should be performed, and the position and integrity of the nasal septum should be noted. The turbinates and inferior meatus should be visualized bilaterally, and the septum should be inspected for the presence of a septal hematoma. Any mucosal lacerations should be noted because they may be a sign of underlying fracture.

The presence of rhinorrhea associated with significant trauma should suggest a possible cerebrospinal fluid (CSF) leak. The patient may report a very salty taste in the mouth. An easy way of objectively testing for a CSF leak is to look for the halo or ring sign. To perform this test, place a drop of the rhinorrhea in question on a piece of filter paper. A clear ring around a blood-tinged center indicates the presence of CSF. A positive test result may indicate a basilar skull fracture that warrants more urgent tertiary care.

Mouth and lip injuries

Inspect the lips carefully. Any disruption of the vermilion border should be noted; failure to do so can lead to inadequate repair, which can result in significant cosmetic deformity (see the image below). A stepoff of the vermilion border as small as 1 mm may be apparent at conversational distance. The presence of a commissural laceration also adds a level of complexity to the wound that may require plastic surgical consultation.

Top row of images depicts improper repair of angle Top row of images depicts improper repair of angled laceration. Bottom row of images depicts proper repair of angled laceration, with creation of perpendicular edges for flush repair.

Inspect the inside of the lips for through-and-through wounds. An intraoral examination is a necessary part of the facial evaluation. The inside of the cheeks should also be examined thoroughly for any through-and-through wounds. Special attention should be given to the area around the parotid duct (see below).

Parotid and lacrimal duct injuries

Because the parotid gland is situated superficially in the cheek, it is vulnerable to any trauma to the face (see the image below). Any injury along an imaginary line drawn from the tragus of the ear to the base of the nose, and lateral to the lateral canthus, should alert practitioners to the possibility of parotid injury. With any injury involving the midcheek, an attempt should be made to milk the parotid gland and observe the flow of saliva from the Stensen duct in order to ensure duct patency.

Location of parotid gland and duct system. Location of parotid gland and duct system.

Consider injury to the gland if there is clear discharge from the cheek wound. Similarly, a sagging upper lip indicates possible injury to the parotid duct, since the buccal branches of the facial nerve often run along with the parotid duct. Any suspected injury should be referred for possible stenting and repair. Also, look for disrupted teeth and hematoma.

Injuries to the medial canthal region must be inspected for lacrimal duct injury. Both upper and lower canaliculi must be examined thoroughly to determine the extent of injury.

Tongue injuries

When examining the injured tongue, note the depth and length of the injury as well as the absence of any tissue. Many minor lacerations do not require repair. Complex injuries such as through-and-through lacerations may be associated with foreign bodies and can result in a bifid tongue if not properly repaired.

Nerve injuries

The facial nerve (CN VII), because of its extracranial course and relatively superficial distribution, is susceptible to facial injuries (see the image below). Injury to the nerve may cause significant cosmetic and functional defects.

If a neurapraxic or axonometric injury has occurred, obvious signs of motor deficit will be present. Injuries to the temporal and eyebrow regions affect the temporal and zygomatic branches, causing inability to raise the eyebrows or close the eyelids. Buccal branch injuries may contribute to an inability to smile and loss of the nasolabial crease. Injuries to the mandibular area may affect the marginal mandibular branch, causing an asymmetric smile with elevation of the lower lip on the affected side.

Any wound with a corresponding facial nerve deficit warrants operative exploration.

Distribution of nerves for regional anesthesia of Distribution of nerves for regional anesthesia of face.

In addition, examine sensation for each of the 3 branches of the trigeminal nerve. Deficits in any distribution may correspond to underlying bony injuries.

Contributor Information and Disclosures

Daniel D Sutphin, MD Attending Plastic and Reconstructive Surgeon, Mountain View Regional Medical Center

Daniel D Sutphin, MD is a member of the following medical societies: American College of Surgeons, American Society of Plastic Surgeons, Christian Medical and Dental Associations

Disclosure: Nothing to disclose.


Armand R Lucas, MD 

Armand R Lucas, MD is a member of the following medical societies: American Society for Aesthetic Plastic Surgery

Disclosure: Nothing to disclose.

Steve Lee, MD Physician in Plastic, Reconstructive, and Hand Surgery, Plastic Surgery, PLLC

Steve Lee, MD is a member of the following medical societies: American College of Surgeons, American Society of Plastic Surgeons

Disclosure: Nothing to disclose.

Yelena Bogdan Stony Brook University Health Sciences Center School of Medicine (SUNY)

Yelena Bogdan is a member of the following medical societies: Phi Beta Kappa

Disclosure: Nothing to disclose.

Chief Editor

Arlen D Meyers, MD, MBA Professor of Otolaryngology, Dentistry, and Engineering, University of Colorado School of Medicine

Arlen D Meyers, MD, MBA is a member of the following medical societies: American Academy of Facial Plastic and Reconstructive Surgery, American Academy of Otolaryngology-Head and Neck Surgery, American Head and Neck Society

Disclosure: Serve(d) as a director, officer, partner, employee, advisor, consultant or trustee for: Cerescan;RxRevu;SymbiaAllergySolutions<br/>Received income in an amount equal to or greater than $250 from: Symbia<br/>Received from Allergy Solutions, Inc for board membership; Received honoraria from RxRevu for chief medical editor; Received salary from Medvoy for founder and president; Received consulting fee from Corvectra for senior medical advisor; Received ownership interest from Cerescan for consulting; Received consulting fee from Essiahealth for advisor; Received consulting fee from Carespan for advisor; Received consulting fee from Covidien for consulting.


Dominique Dorion, MD, MSc, FRCSC, FACS Vice Dean and Associate Dean of Resources, Professor of Surgery, Division of Otolaryngology-Head and Neck Surgery, University of Sherbrooke Faculty of Medicine, Canada

Disclosure: Nothing to disclose.

Francisco Talavera, PharmD, PhD Adjunct Assistant Professor, University of Nebraska Medical Center College of Pharmacy; Editor-in-Chief, Medscape Drug Reference

Disclosure: Medscape Salary Employment

Terance (Terry) Ted Tsue, MD Vice-Chairman for Administrative Affairs, Professor, Residency Program Director, Department of Otolaryngology-Head and Neck Surgery, University of Kansas School of Medicine

Terance (Terry) Ted Tsue, MD is a member of the following medical societies: Alpha Omega Alpha, American Academy of Facial Plastic and Reconstructive Surgery, American Academy of Otolaryngology-Head and Neck Surgery, American College of Surgeons, American Medical Association, American Society for Head and Neck Surgery, Association for Research in Otolaryngology, Johns Hopkins Medical and Surgical Association, Missouri State Medical Association, Phi Beta Kappa, and Society of University Otolaryngologists-Head and Neck Surgeons

Disclosure: Nothing to disclose.

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Location of parotid gland and duct system.
Distribution of nerves for regional anesthesia of face.
Steps to repair lip laceration: 3-layered approach.
Top row of images depicts improper repair of angled laceration. Bottom row of images depicts proper repair of angled laceration, with creation of perpendicular edges for flush repair.
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