Dislodged Tracheostomy Positioning Technique

Updated: Aug 18, 2021
  • Author: Camil EL Correia, MD; Chief Editor: Arlen D Meyers, MD, MBA  more...
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Tracheostomy tube placement has long been used to prolong ventilation and to treat upper airway obstruction and obstructive sleep apnea. Traditionally, tracheostomy tubes were placed via an open technique in the operating room; however, they are now also being performed in intensive care units via either open or percutaneous techniques.

It is estimated that 15%-20% of patients in intensive care units will require a tracheostomy. [1] Of these, approximately 20% will not survive until hospital discharge, in most cases because of underlying medical problems and not typically because of tracheostomy-related complications.

Shah et al (2012) performed a retrospective cohort study of over 113,000 tracheostomy patients and cited an overall 3.2% rate of complications. [2]

The following are among the many potential complications of a tracheostomy:

  • Bleeding

  • Early decannulation or tube dislodgement

  • Mucous plugging

  • Tracheoesophageal fistula

  • Persistent tracheocutaneous fistula

  • Tracheitis

  • Tracheal stenosis

  • Tracheoinnominate fistula

This topic focuses on tracheostomy tube dislodgement, which can happen in any patient. Factors that increase the risk for dislodgment, a potentially catastrophic problem, include the following:

  • Morbid obesity

  • Short or thick neck

  • Goiter

  • Prior radiation or surgery of the neck

  • Device connected to ventilator tubing

  • Patient movement or turning

  • Frequent coughing

  • Immediate postoperative period

  • Inadequately secured tubes

A multi-institutional study by Halum et al (2011) found a 0.8% accidental decannulation rate within the first postoperative week and a 1.2% accidental decannulation rate after one week. [3] Falimirski (2003) reported a higher displacement rate (7%), stating that these incidents usually occur within 72 hours of surgery. [4]



Quick recognition of a dislodged tracheostomy tube is extremely important, as it can be life threatening owing to inadequate ventilation. Complications of a dislodged tube include the following: [5, 6]

  • Loss of airway

  • Pneumothorax

  • Subcutaneous emphysema

  • Pseudotract formation

  • Stomal stenosis

  • Tracheoinnominate fistula

  • Sternoclavicular osteomyelitis

Signs of tracheostomy tube dislodgement include the following:

  • Increased work of breathing

  • Noisy breathing

  • Respiratory failure

  • Voice changes (if able to phonate, not being mechanically ventilated)

  • Subcutaneous emphysema

  • Obvious malposition of the flange/tube

  • Visible cuff in the tracheostoma

  • Change in respiratory dynamics of ventilated patient (increased peak pressures, decreased tidal volumes, or loss of end-tidal CO2 measurements)

  • Inability to pass a suction catheter

  • Inability to hear breath sounds on auscultation

An inability to pass a suction catheter through the tube is a clear indication of (1) tube blockage by mucous plugging or granulation tissue or (2) improper position. A tracheostomy tube through which air cannot pass needs to be replaced as quickly as possible, especially in patients with upper airway obstruction or ventilator dependence.

A dislodged tracheostomy tube may be demonstrated on chest radiography as a radiopaque tube that is not positioned in the lumen of the trachea. However, the logistics required to obtain this test are often too burdensome for it to be practically helpful, especially in unstable settings. Tube malposition can also be confirmed with flexible fiberoptic endoscopy, but this requires specialized equipment and suffers from similar logistical issues. Hence, especially in urgent settings, this problem is recognized clinically.

Some patients with dislodgment may be able to pass air around the tube. In these situations, there is more time to prepare for a tracheostomy tube change. The best success in replacing a dislodged tracheostomy tube is achieved by always being prepared with the proper equipment. Every patient with a tracheotomy should carry a replacement tube of the appropriate size and one size smaller with them at all times (eg, an 8 and a 6) and have portable suction available. The smaller tube is used if there is difficulty inserting the normal tube. When a tube is removed from the tracheostoma, even a well-healed tract can significantly narrow over several hours, so efficient replacement of the tube is important.


Technical Considerations

A dislodged tracheostomy tube (see the video below) needs to be replaced expeditiously. At the same time, if the patient has a stable respiratory status, all appropriate equipment should be made available prior to the tracheostomy tube change. A partially dislodged tube may still provide the patient with an airway, and its removal could worsen the patient’s condition.

Repositioning dislodged tracheostomy tube. Video courtesy of Therese Canares, MD, and Jonathan Valente, MD, Rhode Island Hospital, Brown University.

Only personnel properly trained in tracheostomy tube replacement should change a dislodged tube, especially when the tract is new. However, the procedure is straightforward and can be attempted by many medical personnel. Tracheostomy tube changes prior to 7 days postoperatively are potentially more dangerous. In general, the operating surgeon should perform the first tube change, as he/she can assess if the tract is well healed and that future tube changes can be performed with ease. In emergent situations, the most experienced person available should replace the tracheostomy tube. Physicians, nurses, and respiratory therapists may be trained how to perform standard tracheostomy tube changes.

In patients who have a tracheostomy for upper airway obstruction, tracheal stenosis, head and neck cancer, or facial trauma, the change should be performed when someone who is trained in difficult airway management is available. Orotracheal intubation may not be possible to perform in some cases; however, one should always be prepared to attempt it, if needed.


Complication Prevention

Because most tracheostomy tubes become dislodged in the immediate postoperative period, some intraoperative steps can be taken to decrease the risk.

The tracheostomy tube should be secured in place with both sutures and string ties. The ties should fit snugly around the neck so as not to allow the tube to move in and out of the newly created tracheal opening. Stay-sutures are also helpful in open procedures to pull the trachea more superficially if the tube falls out, making replacement easier. [7] These should clearly be labeled up/down or left/right depending on where they are placed in relation to the hold created in the trachea.

A Björk flap may also help to create a more defined tract in the immediate postoperative period. [8] This, however, cannot be performed in pediatric tracheotomies. [9]

In morbidly obese patients, it is important to use an appropriately sized tracheostomy tube. This may mean using a soft flexible tube with an adjustable flange, such as a Bivona template (which can then provide measurements for a customized tracheostomy tube) or a tube with an extra-long proximal portion.



Tracheostomy tube dislodgement has a high rate of mortality if occuring in the early post-operative period due to the immaturity of the tracheostoma. The risk of pseudotract formation due to forceful attempts at reinsertion is greater and loss of the airway can have devastating effects. Quick identification of the complication, in addition to readily available supplies and personnel with adequate experience, is critical to ensuring good outcomes.