BACKGROUND: The usefulness of spiral computed tomographic (CT) scans of the chest with three dimensional imaging (3D-CT) of intrathoracic structures in the diagnosis and management of paediatric intrathoracic airway obstruction was assessed. METHODS: A retrospective review was made of five consecutive cases (age range six months to four years) admitted to the paediatric intensive care unit and paediatric radiology division of a tertiary care children's hospital with severe respiratory decompensation suspected of being caused by intrathoracic large airway obstruction. Under adequate sedation, the patients underwent high speed spiral CT scanning of the thorax. Non-ionic contrast solution was injected in two patients to demonstrate the anatomical relationship between the airway and the intrathoracic large vessels. Using computer software, three-dimensional images of intrathoracic structures were then reconstructed by the radiologist. RESULTS: In all five patients the imaging results were useful in directing the physician to the correct diagnosis and appropriate management. In one patient, who had undergone repair of tetralogy of Fallot with absent pulmonary valve, the 3D-CT image showed bilateral disruptions in the integrity of the tracheobronchial tree due to compression by a dilated pulmonary artery. This patient underwent pulmonary artery aneurysmorrhaphy and required continued home mechanical ventilation via tracheostomy. In three other patients with symptoms of lower airway obstruction the 3D-CT images showed significant stenosis in segments of the tracheobronchial tree in two of them, and subsequent bronchoscopy established a diagnosis of segmental bronchomalacia. These two patients required mechanical ventilation and distending pressure to relieve their bronchospasm. In another patient who had undergone surgical repair of intrathoracic tracheal stenosis three years prior to admission the 3D-CT scan ruled out restenosis as the reason for her acute respiratory decompensation. CONCLUSIONS: 3D-CT scanning is a useful additional diagnostic tool for intrathoracic airway obstruction in paediatric patients.
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