Detection of haemorrhagic shock: Are vital signs obsolete? A commentary by Dr M. Luginbühl

Luginbühl, Martin (2015). Detection of haemorrhagic shock: Are vital signs obsolete? A commentary by Dr M. Luginbühl. Trends in Anaesthesia and Critical Care, 5(4), pp. 93-94. Elsevier 10.1016/j.tacc.2015.05.001

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The ATLS program by the American college of surgeons is probably the most important globally active training organization dedicated to improve trauma management. Detection of acute haemorrhagic shock belongs to the key issues in clinical practice and thus also in medical teaching. (In this issue of the journal William Schulz and Ian McConachrie critically review the ATLS shock classification Table 1), which has been criticized after several attempts of validation have failed [1]. The main problem is that distinct ranges of heart rate are related to ranges of uncompensated blood loss and that the heart rate decrease observed in severe haemorrhagic shock is ignored [2].

Table 1.
Estimated blood loos based on patient's initial presentation (ATLS Students Course Manual, 9th Edition, American College of Surgeons 2012).

Class I

Class II

Class III

Class IV

Blood loss ml Up to 750 750–1500 1500–2000 >2000
Blood loss (% blood volume) Up to 15% 15–30% 30–40% >40%
Pulse rate (BPM) <100 100–120 120–140 >140
Systolic blood pressure Normal Normal Decreased Decreased
Pulse pressure Normal or ↑ Decreased Decreased Decreased
Respiratory rate 14–20 20–30 30–40 >35
Urine output (ml/h) >30 20–30 5–15 negligible
CNS/mental status Slightly anxious Mildly anxious Anxious, confused Confused, lethargic
Initial fluid replacement Crystalloid Crystalloid Crystalloid and blood Crystalloid and blood

Table options

In a retrospective evaluation of the Trauma Audit and Research Network (TARN) database blood loss was estimated according to the injuries in nearly 165,000 adult trauma patients and each patient was allocated to one of the four ATLS shock classes [3]. Although heart rate increased and systolic blood pressure decreased from class I to class IV, respiratory rate and GCS were similar. The median heart rate in class IV patients was substantially lower than the value of 140 min−1 postulated by ATLS. Moreover deterioration of the different parameters does not necessarily go parallel as suggested in the ATLS shock classification [4] and [5]. In all these studies injury severity score (ISS) and mortality increased with in increasing shock class [3] and with increasing heart rate and decreasing blood pressure [4] and [5]. This supports the general concept that the higher heart rate and the lower blood pressure, the sicker is the patient.

A prospective study attempted to validate a shock classification derived from the ATLS shock classes [6]. The authors used a combination of heart rate, blood pressure, clinically estimated blood loss and response to fluid resuscitation to classify trauma patients (Table 2) [6]. In their initial assessment of 715 predominantly blunt trauma patients 78% were classified as normal (Class 0), 14% as Class I, 6% as Class II and only 1% as Class III and Class IV respectively. This corresponds to the results from the previous retrospective studies [4] and [5]. The main endpoint used in the prospective study was therefore presence or absence of significant haemorrhage, defined as chest tube drainage >500 ml, evidence of >500 ml of blood loss in peritoneum, retroperitoneum or pelvic cavity on CT scan or requirement of any blood transfusion >2000 ml of crystalloid. Because of the low prevalence of class II or higher grades statistical evaluation was limited to a comparison between Class 0 and Class I–IV combined. As in the retrospective studies, Lawton did not find a statistical difference of heart rate and blood pressure among the five groups either, although there was a tendency to a higher heart rate in Class II patients. Apparently classification during primary survey did not rely on vital signs but considered the rather soft criterion of “clinical estimation of blood loss” and requirement of fluid substitution. This suggests that allocation of an individual patient to a shock classification was probably more an intuitive decision than an objective calculation the shock classification. Nevertheless it was a significant predictor of ISS [6].

Table 2.
Shock grade categories in prospective validation study (Lawton, 2014) [6].

No haemorrhage

Class I

Class II

Class III

Class IV

Vitals Normal Normal HR > 100 with SBP >90 mmHg SBP < 90 mmHg SBP < 90 mmHg or imminent arrest
Response to fluid bolus (1000 ml) NA Yes, no further fluid required Yes, no further fluid required Requires repeated fluid boluses Declining SBP despite fluid boluses
Estimated blood loss (ml) None Up to 750 750–1500 1500–2000 >2000

Table options

What does this mean for clinical practice and medical teaching? All these studies illustrate the difficulty to validate a useful and accepted physiologic general concept of the response of the organism to fluid loss: Decrease of cardiac output, increase of heart rate, decrease of pulse pressure occurring first and hypotension and bradycardia occurring only later. Increasing heart rate, increasing diastolic blood pressure or decreasing systolic blood pressure should make any clinician consider hypovolaemia first, because it is treatable and deterioration of the patient is preventable. This is true for the patient on the ward, the sedated patient in the intensive care unit or the anesthetized patients in the OR.

We will therefore continue to teach this typical pattern but will continue to mention the exceptions and pitfalls on a second stage. The shock classification of ATLS is primarily used to illustrate the typical pattern of acute haemorrhagic shock (tachycardia and hypotension) as opposed to the Cushing reflex (bradycardia and hypertension) in severe head injury and intracranial hypertension or to the neurogenic shock in acute tetraplegia or high paraplegia (relative bradycardia and hypotension). Schulz and McConachrie nicely summarize the various confounders and exceptions from the general pattern and explain why in clinical reality patients often do not present with the “typical” pictures of our textbooks [1]. ATLS refers to the pitfalls in the signs of acute haemorrhage as well: Advanced age, athletes, pregnancy, medications and pace makers and explicitly state that individual subjects may not follow the general pattern. Obviously the ATLS shock classification which is the basis for a number of questions in the written test of the ATLS students course and which has been used for decades probably needs modification and cannot be literally applied in clinical practice. The European Trauma Course, another important Trauma training program uses the same parameters to estimate blood loss together with clinical exam and laboratory findings (e.g. base deficit and lactate) but does not use a shock classification related to absolute values.

In conclusion the typical physiologic response to haemorrhage as illustrated by the ATLS shock classes remains an important issue in clinical practice and in teaching. The estimation of the severity haemorrhage in the initial assessment trauma patients is (and was never) solely based on vital signs only but includes the pattern of injuries, the requirement of fluid substitution and potential confounders. Vital signs are not obsolete especially in the course of treatment but must be interpreted in view of the clinical context.

Conflict of interest

None declared. Member of Swiss national ATLS core faculty.

Item Type:

Journal Article (Further Contribution)


04 Faculty of Medicine > Department of Intensive Care, Emergency Medicine and Anaesthesiology (DINA) > Clinic and Policlinic for Anaesthesiology and Pain Therapy

UniBE Contributor:

Luginbühl, Martin


600 Technology > 610 Medicine & health








Jeannie Wurz

Date Deposited:

05 Feb 2016 14:25

Last Modified:

23 Jan 2018 12:14

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