The bougie – is it immortal?

Despite the technique of using an introducer to facilitate intubation being described over 65 years ago, the bougie, or tracheal tube introducer, remains a popular airway adjunct. With the development of more hi-tech aids to manage the airway, such as video laryngoscopes, is the demise of the bougie imminent or is it destined for immortality?

As Dr J J Henderson confirmed in correspondence entitled, ‘Development of the gum-elastic bougie’ – published in Anaesthesia in 2003, although Robert Reynolds Macintosh, who designed the Macintosh Laryngoscope – described by Sir Anthony Jephcott  as, ‘the most numerously and widely made durable item in the history of anaesthesia’ – is usually given credit for the first use of introducers to facilitate tracheal intubation, the technique was described a year earlier by Minnitt & Gillies in their ‘Textbook of Anaesthetics’, published by E & S Livingstone Ltd in 1948.

Dr Henderson confirms that in relation to passage of a tracheal tube with the Macintosh laryngoscope, the Minnitt & Gillies publication suggested, ‘This is an easy matter when a semi-rigid gum elastic catheter is passed’. 

 Sir Robert Macintosh (1897 – 1989), knighted in 1955, described the technique in his landmark illustrated 1949 article entitled, ‘An aid to oral intubation’ as follows:

 ‘One of the difficulties in passing tubes beyond a certain size is that the body of the tube obscures the view of the cords through which the tip must be directed. In order to overcome this I thread the tube over a long gum-elastic catheter, the tip of which is then passed through the cords under direct vision. Using the catheter as a guide, the tube is gently pushed down into position and the guide is then withdrawn.’

A few years later in 1952, responding to correspondence from a Dr Rook, Barnard (Anaesthesia 1952;7:119) described a technique he found of practical value when for any reason intubation proved difficult:

‘A small gum-elastic bougie is pushed through the Magill’s tube until about two inches extend beyond the distal end. The bougie is then bent forwards at an angle of 45 degrees or less. A Macintosh’s laryngoscope is passed and the bougie is passed through the larynx. The Magill’s tube is then passed well into the trachea and the bougie is removed’.

Use was not widespread until after the introduction of the Endotracheal Tube Introducer by Eschmann Bros & Walsh Ltd in the 1970s. This device incorporated a coudé tip, one of a number of differences to the device originally described by Macintosh in 1949. Dr Venn, who designed the device whilst working as an anaesthetic advisor to Eschmann, has described the development of the bougie in correspondence published in Anaesthesia in 1993 and the story was expanded further by Dr Henderson, from additional information provided by Dr Venn, in an article entitled, ‘Development of the gum-elastic bougie’ published in the same journal ten years later.

One irony is, as El-Orbany et al noted in Anesthesiology in 2004, the Eschmann Tracheal Tube Introducer is not gum, elastic or a bougie. The gum elastic bougie was originally a urinary catheter designed for dilation of urethral strictures. The material of the Eschmann device was different in that it had two layers: a core of tube woven from polyester threads and an outer resin layer. Other differences were the length, longer at 60cm, to allow the railroading of an endotracheal tube and the ‘presence of a 35 degree curved tip, permitting it to be steered around obstacles’.

Since its introduction, the bougie, or tracheal tube introducer, has grown in popularity, and whilst an equipment list for management of the difficult airway might include a number of different types of devices and airway adjuncts, such as alternative styles of rigid laryngoscope blades, supraglottic airways, video laryngoscopes and flexible fibreoptic intubation equipment, it is also likely to include some form of tracheal tube introducer or guide – single use or reusable.

The Difficult Airway Society (DAS) 2005 list of recommended equipment for routine airway management includes a ‘Tracheal tube introducer (gum-elastic-bougie)’ and an ‘Introducer (bougie)’ is included as part of ‘Plan A: Initial tracheal intubation plan’ in the DAS algorithm for ‘Unanticipated difficult tracheal intubation – during routine induction of anaesthesia in an adult patient’. Intubating bougies are also mentioned in the section on Recommendations for Extubation in the ‘Practice Guidelines for Management of the Difficult Airway’ , an updated report by the American Society of Anesthesiologists (ASA) Task Force on Management of the Difficult Airway, published in 2013.

Single use alternatives from a variety of manufacturers have been available for a number of years, and the Association of Anaesthetists of Great Britain and Ireland (AAGBI) Safety Guideline document, Infection Control in Anaesthesia, published in 2008, states:

Bougies: ‘Re-use of these items has been associated with cross-infection. Manufacturers recommend that a gum elastic bougie may be disinfected up to five times between patients and stored in a sealed packet. It is preferable that alternative single-use intubation aids are employed where possible.’

Even a cursory search of the published literature relating to tracheal tube introducers produces literally hundreds of studies, case reports and correspondence, comparing different types of introducers and a variety of potential extended applications, as well as the effects of sterilisation on multi-use devices, (Anaesthesia, 2011, 66, pages 1134 – 1139), and the forces required to remove bougies from tracheal tubes (Anaesthesia, 2009, 64, pages 320 – 322). There is even a report, published in Anaesthesia in 2007, regarding a home-made bougie. A quite alarming story in this modern age of device regulation, the author describes fashioning a bougie in Indonesia from a wire coat hanger and an ordinary giving set whilst waiting for a bougie to arrive from England! The author used the device on more than 40 occasions, commenting that, ‘In four patients I do not think I would have been able to intubate the trachea without it.’

It seems the bougie continues to be perceived as a useful airway adjunct for the persistent epiglottis-only view, but as Dr Richard Levitan has described in his overview of the Bougie (Tube Introducer), ‘The bougie is not a heat seeking missile, i.e., it does not ‘find’ the trachea automatically; laryngeal landmarks, i.e. the epiglottis at a minimum, or preferably the posterior cartilages must be sighted to place the bougie in the trachea.’

Given that many airway conferences now often include a debate comparing direct laryngoscopy to video laryngoscopy and provocatively ask whether the days of the standard laryngoscope are numbered, it is interesting that even those who feel the value of a bougie may sometimes be overstated, do not seem to suggest the bougie is in imminent danger of being consigned to the history books as a relic of anaesthesia practice from days gone by. Perhaps the bougie is immortal?

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