Approach to the trauma patient – ABCDE of trauma care

Approach to the trauma patient – ABCDE of trauma care


Jane Doe, 22-year-old female, was in a major car crash and is approaching the trauma bay via an ambulance. You are aware that the patient’s condition is critical, so you do a quick run-through in your head about the approach that you will have to care for them once they arrive to your emergency department. What should your approach to a trauma patient be?

The ABCDE of Trauma Care

The Airway, Breathing, Circulation, Disability, Exposure (ABCDE) approach is a clinically proven approach to any critically ill patient that needs emergent care and treatment. It has been proven to improve patient outcomes, optimize team performance and save time when patients are in life-threatening conditions [1]. This approach is applicable to all patients (both adults and children), regardless of their underlying condition. However, the ABCDE approach is not applicable to patients who are in cardiac arrest, in which case the cardiopulmonary resuscitation guidelines should be used [2].

With the ABCDE approach, initial assessment and treatment are performed simultaneously. Once the entire survey is completed, reassessment should be conducted until the patient is stable enough for the care team to be able to move on to the secondary survey and look for a definitive diagnosis.

A - Airway

First, the care team should assess if the patient’s airway is patent. If the patient responds to the team in a normal voice, then that is a good sign that the airway is intact. It is important to note that airway obstruction can be complete or partial, and can be caused by upper airway obstruction or reduced level of consciousness.

Signs of complete airway obstruction are lack of respiration despite great effort. Signs of partial airway obstruction include:
– Changes in the patient’s voice
– Snoring or gurgling
– Stridor (noisy breathing)
– Increased breathing effort

Assess the patient’s airway by looking for rocking chest wall motion and any signs of maxillofacial trauma or laryngeal injury. Perform the head-tilt and chin-lift maneuver to open the airway (note that caution should be conducted in patients with C-spine injury). If there is anything that is noticeably obstructing the airway, suction or remove it. If possible, remove foreign bodies that are causing airway obstruction. Provide high-flow oxygen to the critically ill patient and perform definitive airway if needed [1].

B – Breathing

Generally, airway and breathing are examined simultaneously. Determine if breathing is intact by assessing the respiratory rate, inspecting the chest wall movement for symmetry, depth, and respiratory pattern. Additionally, assess for tracheal deviation and use of respiratory muscles. Percuss the chest for dullness or resonance, auscultate for breath sounds and apply a pulse oximeter [1].

Injuries that impact breathing should be immediately recognized, and life-threatening injuries should be addressed and managed [3]. For example, tension pneumothorax must be promptly relieved by needle thoracocentesis, bronchospasms should be managed with inhalation and assisted ventilation should be considered if breathing continues to be insufficient [1].

C – Circulation

Conditions that threaten the patient’s circulation and can be fatal include shock, hypertensive crises, vascular emergencies such as aortic dissection and aortic aneurisms. These conditions should be immediately identified and managed [1].

Circulation can be assessed by looking at the general appearance of the patient, including signs of cyanosis, pallor, flushing and diaphoresis. Assess for any obvious signs of hemorrhage, blood loss and level of consciousness. Additionally, capillary refill time and pulse rate should be assessed. Auscultate the chest for heart sounds, and blood pressure measurement and electrocardiography should be performed as soon as possible [1].

Additionally, assess for signs of hypovolemia and shock. If these are identified, obtain an intravenous access and infuse saline to restore circulating volume [1]. If there are life-threatening conditions that are compromising the patient’s circulation, promptly identify and treat them as needed. For example, tension pneumothorax should be immediately treated with needle decompression and cardiac tamponade can be relived with pericardiocentesis.

D - Disability

The main disability in the primary survey to be assessed for is the brain. Abnormal neurological status can be caused by primary brain injury or systemic conditions that effect brain perfusion, such as shock, hypoxia, intoxication etc. Assess the level of consciousness by using the Glasgow Coma Scale [4], look for pupillary response and limb movement.

The best way to prevent injury to the brain is to maintain adequate airway, breathing and circulation. Glucose levels can be assessed at bedside for decreased level of consciousness due to low blood glucose levels, and corrected with oral or infused glucose [1].

E – Exposure

The exposure portion of the ABCDE approach involves assessment of the whole-body to avoid any signs of missing injuries. During this part of the management, undress the patient fully and examine the back for any signs of C-spine precautions. Additionally, check for clues for any signs of underlying conditions, such as:

  • Signs of trauma (i.e. burns, gunshot wounds, stab wounds)
  • Rashes
  • Causes of sepsis (i.e. infected wounds, gangrene)
  • Toxins and drugs (i.e. needle track marks, chemicals, patches)
  • Other wounds such as bite marks, insect bites, embedded ticks
  • Iatrogenic causes (i.e. catheters, tubes, implants, surgical sites and scars)

Concluding Remarks

The ABCDE approach to the critically ill patient is a strong and proven clinical tool for initial assessment and treatment of patients in medical emergencies. Widespread knowledge of this skill is critical for healthcare workers and any team providing emergent care to trauma patients. 

*Note that this is a general approach to the trauma patient. Always consult your care team for adequate management of trauma patients and resort to reliable resources for more information on the ABCDE approach. 

References and Further Reading

  1. Thim, T., Krarup, N. H. V., Grove, E. L., Rohde, C. V., & Løfgren, B. (2012). Initial assessment and treatment with the Airway, Breathing, Circulation, Disability, Exposure (ABCDE) approach. International journal of general medicine5, 117.
  2. Koster, R. W., Baubin, M. A., Bossaert, L. L., Caballero, A., Cassan, P., Castrén, M., … & Sandroni, C. (2010). European Resuscitation Council Guidelines for Resuscitation 2010 Section 2. Adult basic life support and use of automated external defibrillators. Resuscitation81(10), 1277-1292.
  3. Subcommittee, A. T. L. S., & International ATLS Working Group. (2013). Advanced trauma life support (ATLS®): the ninth edition. The journal of trauma and acute care surgery74(5), 1363-1366.
  4. Sternbach, G. L. (2000). The Glasgow coma scale. The Journal of emergency medicine19(1), 67-71.
Cite this article as: Maryam Bagherzadeh, Canada, "Approach to the trauma patient – ABCDE of trauma care," in International Emergency Medicine Education Project, January 19, 2022,, date accessed: December 11, 2023

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