Acute Crit Care.  2020 Nov;35(4):298-301. 10.4266/acc.2019.00570.

Fatal airway obstruction due to a ball-valve clot with identical signs of tension pneumothorax

  • 1Department of Surgical Intensive Care Medicine, Nagoya University Hospital, Nagoya, Japan
  • 2Department of Emergency and Medical Intensive Care Unit, Nagoya University Hospital, Nagoya, Japan


Endo-tracheal tube obstruction due to an extensive blood clot is a recognized but very rare complication. A ball-valve obstruction in the airway could function as a check valve for the lung and thorax, resulting in tension pneumothorax-like abnormalities. A 47-year-old female patient had undergone implantation of a left ventricular assist device 3 weeks prior. On post-operative day 17, planned thoracentesis was performed for drainage of a pleural effusion. Despite the drainage, the patient’s oxygenation did not improve, and emergency tracheal intubation was conducted. Subsequent computed tomography revealed bilateral pneumothorax. Two days later, the patient’s trachea was extubated without complication, and a mini-tracheostomy tube was placed. Three hours later, reintubation was conducted due to progressive tachypnea. Although successful intubation was confirmed, ventilation became increasingly difficult and finally impossible. Marked increase in pulmonary artery and central venous pressures suggested progression of the previous tension pneumothorax. After emergency extracorporeal membrane oxygenation was initiated, fiberoptic bronchoscopy revealed the presence of a massive clot and ball-valve obstruction of the endotracheal tube. Two weeks later, the patient died due to severe hypoxic brain damage. Diagnosis of ball valve clot is not simple, but intensivists should consider this rare complication.


ball valve obstruction; mini-tracheostomy; tension pneumothorax
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