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Rapid Sequence Intubation

  • Author: Keith A Lafferty, MD; Chief Editor: Ryland P Byrd, Jr, MD  more...
Updated: Apr 04, 2014


Airway management is one of the most important skills for an emergency department practitioner to master because failure to secure an adequate airway can quickly lead to death or disability.[1] Endotracheal intubation using rapid sequence intubation (RSI) is the cornerstone of emergency airway management.[2, 3]

The decision to intubate is sometimes difficult. Clinical experience is required to recognize signs of impending respiratory failure. Patients who require intubation have at least one of the following 5 indications: 1) inability to maintain airway patency, 2) inability to protect the airway against aspiration, 3) ventilatory compromise, 4) failure to adequately oxygenate pulmonary capillary blood, 5) anticipation of a deteriorating course that will eventually lead to the inability to maintain airway patency or protection.

RSI is the preferred method of endotracheal intubation in the emergency department (ED) because it results in rapid unconsciousness (induction) and neuromuscular blockade (paralysis). This is important in patients who have not fasted and are at much greater risk for vomiting and aspiration. To this end, the goal of RSI is to intubate the trachea without having to use bag-valve-mask (BVM) ventilation, which is often necessary when attempting to achieve intubating conditions with sedative agents alone (eg, midazolam, diazepam).

Instead of titrating to effect, RSI involves administration of weight-based doses of an induction agent (eg, etomidate) immediately followed by a paralytic agent (eg, succinylcholine, rocuronium) to render the patient unconscious and paralyzed within 1 minute. This method has been proven safe and effective in EDs over the past 2 decades, and it is considered the standard of care. When administered by experienced, well-trained intensivists, use of neuromuscular blocking agents in patients undergoing emergent tracheal intubation is associated with a significant decrease in procedure-related complications.[4]

RSI is not indicated in a patient who is unconscious and apneic. This situation is considered a "crash" airway, and immediate BVM ventilation and endotracheal intubation without pretreatment, induction, or paralysis is indicated.

RSI should be approached with caution in a patient with a suspected difficult airway. If difficulty is anticipated, then an awake technique or the use of airway adjuncts (eg, fiberoptic intubation) is recommended. Alternatively, anesthesia personnel may be called upon to assist in securing the airway of a difficult-to-intubate patient.

Certain clinical scenarios may call for pretreatment medications prior to induction/paralysis to optimize physiologic parameters for intubation, such as blunting the sympathetic response to laryngoscopy, preventing upward or downward spikes in blood pressure, avoiding increased intracranial pressure, and facilitating bronchodilation. These conditions include suspected high intracranial pressure (eg, intracranial hemorrhage or trauma), severe asthma or COPD, hypovolemic shock, aortic emergencies, and pediatric considerations, among others.

Extrapolating known techniques and procedures that are intuitive and evidence-based from the emergency department to the field often makes sound clinical sense. However, the same standards that govern such modalities should apply wherever they are practiced. Recent literature has questioned the benefit of RSI in the prehospital setting.[5] Contributing factors may be the inducement of hyperventilation and hypoxia, both of which have been shown to increase mortality in trauma patients undergoing prehospital RSI.[6]

Additional studies have shown that the use of prehospital RSI is associated with an increased incidence of transient and prolonged hypoxia (57% of patients with a median hypoxic time of 60 s), often going unnoticed by the paramedic.[7] Lack of initial and ongoing training, national variability in paramedic protocols, and inadequate experience must be studied and monitored. Randomized prospective studies are needed to better delineate and define the use of prehospital RSI.

Controversy exists (generally due to lack of clinical evidence) in several areas of RSI, including use of atropine as an adjunct agent for children, the role of lidocaine in pretreatment, the role of a "defasciculating" or priming dose of a nondepolarizing paralytic agent, relative

contraindications for use of succinylcholine, and even amount and methods of preoxygenation and the need to use cricoid pressure (Sellick maneuver). This articles highlights some of these controversies, and the interested reader can also review El-Orbany's 2010 article.[8]

This article focuses on direct laryngoscopy using a traditional laryngoscope.

Indications Failure to maintain airway tone

  • Swelling of upper airway as in anaphylaxis or infection
  • Facial or neck trauma with oropharyngeal bleeding or hematoma

Decreased consciousness and loss of airway reflexes

  • Failure to protect airway against aspiration - Decreased consciousness that leads to regurgitation of vomit, secretions, or blood

Failure to ventilate

  • End result of failure to maintain and protect airway
  • Prolonged respiratory effort that results in fatigue or failure, as in status asthmaticus or severe COPD

Failure to oxygenate (ie, transport oxygen to pulmonary capillary blood)

Anticipated clinical course or deterioration (eg, need for situation control, tests, procedures)

  • Uncooperative trauma patient with life-threatening injuries who needs procedures (eg, chest tube) or immediate CT scanning
  • Stab wound to neck with expanding hematoma
  • Septic shock with high minute-ventilation and poor peripheral perfusion
  • Intracranial hemorrhage with altered mental status and need for close blood pressure control
  • Cervical spine fracture with concern for edema and loss of airway patency



See the list below:

  • Total upper airway obstruction, which requires a surgical airway
  • Total loss of facial/oropharyngeal landmarks, which requires a surgical airway


Anticipated "difficult" airway, in which endotracheal intubation may be unsuccessful, resulting in reliance on successful bag-valve-mask (BVM) ventilation to keep an unconscious patient alive

  • In this scenario, techniques for awake intubation and difficult airway adjuncts can be used.
  • Multiple methods can be used to evaluate the airway and the risk of difficult intubation (eg, LEMON rule, 3-3-2, Mallampati class, McCormack and Lehane grade). Please refer to the Difficult Airway Assessment section below for details.

The "crash" airway, in which the patient is in an arrest situation, unconscious and apneic

  • In this scenario, the patient is already unconscious and may be flaccid; further, no time is available for preoxygenation, pretreatment, or induction and paralysis.
  • BVM ventilation, intubation, or both should be performed immediately without medications.

Best Practices

To simplify rapid sequence intubation (RSI), one can think of administering essentially 2 drugs: an induction agent (etomidate) and a paralytic agent (succinylcholine). These fulfill the criteria of possessing a short onset/duration and high potency.

To intubate a trauma patient with C-spine precautions, the cervical collar may be removed with a dedicated assistant providing inline immobilization. Removing the anterior part of the cervical collar while maintaining inline cervical spine immobilization is acceptable and may cause less cervical spine movement than cervical collar immobilization during laryngoscopy for endotracheal intubation.

Position the head and neck in the sniffing position by flexing the neck and extending the atlanto-occipital joint. Reposition the head if an adequate view of the glottic opening is not achieved.

The patient must be adequately preoxygenated to prevent desaturation during the period of apnea after the paralytic agent has been administered (to minimize the risk of gastric content aspiration). The least amount of ventilation support required to obtain good oxygen saturation should be used during this period. Blow-by high-flow oxygen via a nonrebreather mask is usually used, but for patients who are noted to desaturate (eg, beyond 90%), breaths delivered via 100% oxygen bag-valve-mask (BVM) may be required.

To minimize the risk of gastric aspiration, the Sellick maneuver (firm pressure over the thyroid cartilage) may be initiated as soon as positive-pressure ventilation is started (eg, during pretreatment if the patient is not able to maintain airway reflexes) and should be continued until inflation of the tracheal cuff of the endotracheal tube in the trachea. Note, however, that recent evidence questions the benefit of this modality.[9, 10]

Firm backward, upward, and rightward pressure (BURP) on the patient's thyroid cartilage can improve the Cormack/Lehane view up to one full grade. Typically, the assistant performing the Sellick maneuver can assist, resulting in a combined Sellick-BURP maneuver.

A No. 3 Macintosh or No. 3 Miller blade is generally sufficient for most patients, but a No. 4 blade (ie, next larger size) may be required in some adults. Note, some clinicians routinely use a No. 4 Macintosh blade, as it can be used in substitution of a Miller without switching blades.

A recent study by Brown III et al shows an overall improvement in glottic exposure with video compared to direct laryngoscopy.[11] More importantly, 25% of patients undergoing direct laryngoscopy displayed a poor glottic view; the use of video laryngoscopy improved this to a good view in nearly 80% of these patients.

Provide appropriate analgesia and sedation for patient comfort after RSI is successfully completed, especially if the patient is chemically paralyzed with a longer-acting paralytic agent (eg, vecuronium).

RSI is a procedure for patients with a critical disease or traumatic process. The selection of technique and specific agents is determined individually for each patient and situation. This article focuses on straightforward RSI for adults. Different techniques, equipment, and agents may be used for complex or rescue situations.

Accurate confirmation of correct placement of the tube in the trachea is essential.

  • Direct visualization of the tube was previously the criterion standard for confirming placement; however, this method can be fraught with human error.
  • The current criterion standard is end-tidal carbon dioxide detection, using either a calorimetric capnometer that changes color from purple to yellow with CO 2 exposure or a quantitative capnometer that measures CO 2 levels and can display a waveform. The yellow color change should occur rapidly within 1-2 breaths, and esophageal or supraglottic placement should be assumed if the color change is less rapid or does not occur at all. Color change may not be reliable in cases of prolonged cardiac arrest.
  • Clinical parameters such as pulse oximetry readings or tube condensation may be nonspecific and misleading. A canine study by Kelly and colleagues demonstrated tube condensation in up to 83% of esophageal intubations. [12]

The step of preoxygenation maximizes hemoglobin and plasma oxygen saturation and creates an oxygen reservoir in the lungs by replacing nitrogen at the alveolar level and supersaturating the blood with oxygen (nitrogen washout).

  • This oxygen reservoir in the lungs can eliminate the need for BVM ventilation for most patients undergoing RSI during the iatrogenically created period of apnea.
  • Preoxygenation is accomplished by delivering 100% oxygen at high flow given to a spontaneously breathing patient through a nonrebreather mask for 3 minutes without "bagging" the patient.

Studies such as the one by Barker and colleagues have shown that 8 vital capacity breaths over 60 seconds results in the same degree of preoxygenation as the standard 3 minutes of tidal volume breathing of 100% oxygen by mask. This technique may be used as an alternate to the traditional 3-min tidal volume technique. Comorbidities such as the presence of a hypermetabolic state, obesity, or a primary respiratory problem (eg, congestive heart failure, acute respiratory distress syndrome, pneumonia) cause patients to desaturate rapidly despite attempts at adequate preoxygenation.

A patient who is hypoxemic during attempts at intubation should undergo positive pressure ventilation with a BVM to raise PaO2 levels. Consider applying cricoid pressure.

Contributor Information and Disclosures

Keith A Lafferty, MD Adjunct Assistant Professor of Emergency Medicine, Temple University School of Medicine; Medical Student Director, Department of Emergency Medicine, Gulf Coast Medical Center

Keith A Lafferty, MD is a member of the following medical societies: American Academy of Emergency Medicine, American Medical Association, Pennsylvania Medical Society

Disclosure: Nothing to disclose.

Specialty Editor Board

Mary L Windle, PharmD Adjunct Associate Professor, University of Nebraska Medical Center College of Pharmacy; Editor-in-Chief, Medscape Drug Reference

Disclosure: Nothing to disclose.

Luis M Lovato, MD Associate Clinical Professor, University of California, Los Angeles, David Geffen School of Medicine; Director of Critical Care, Department of Emergency Medicine, Olive View-UCLA Medical Center

Luis M Lovato, MD is a member of the following medical societies: Alpha Omega Alpha, American College of Emergency Physicians, Society for Academic Emergency Medicine

Disclosure: Nothing to disclose.

Chief Editor

Ryland P Byrd, Jr, MD Professor of Medicine, Division of Pulmonary Disease and Critical Care Medicine, James H Quillen College of Medicine, East Tennessee State University

Ryland P Byrd, Jr, MD is a member of the following medical societies: American College of Chest Physicians, American Thoracic Society

Disclosure: Nothing to disclose.

Additional Contributors

Michael R Filbin, MD, FACEP Clinical Instructor, Department of Emergency Medicine, Massachusetts General Hospital

Michael R Filbin, MD, FACEP is a member of the following medical societies: American College of Emergency Physicians, Massachusetts Medical Society, Society for Academic Emergency Medicine

Disclosure: Received research grant from: Nihon Kohden Corporation, Tokyo Japan.

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Proper alignment of the axes for tracheal intubation.
Hyomental distance (3 finger breadths).
Thyrohyoid distance (2 finger breadths).
Laryngoscope handle, No. 3 Macintosh (curved) blade, and No. 3 Miller (straight) blade.
Mallampati classification.
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