Skip to Main Content

We have a new app!

Take the Access library with you wherever you go—easy access to books, videos, images, podcasts, personalized features, and more.

Download the Access App here: iOS and Android


The number of serious retroperitoneal, intraperitoneal, or vascular injuries that can occur, many of which require operative repair, complicates the evaluation of penetrating injuries to the flank or buttocks. Imaging assists in diagnosis and can direct selective conservative management. The choice of management, conservative or operative, is based on the emergency evaluation, making the emergency physician's input essential to a correct decision and a clinically successful outcome.



The flank is located between the anterior and posterior axillary lines, bordered superiorly by the sixth rib and inferiorly by the iliac crest. Although a penetrating wound to the flank can produce intraperitoneal injury with the associated findings of peritonitis or hemoperitoneum, it is possible that a penetrating flank injury could injure only the retroperitoneal organs. A solitary injury to the retroperitoneum from a penetrating flank injury may not induce peritoneal signs initially, and reliance on physical exam findings alone could lead to a delay in diagnosis, resulting in septic or hemorrhagic shock. Essentially any intra-abdominal organ is at risk for injury from a penetrating flank wound, and injuries to the kidney, ureter, bladder, liver, spleen, gallbladder, pancreas, colon, adrenal gland, diaphragm, stomach, duodenum, lung, esophagus, heart, and vascular structures have all been reported.1,2,3,4

The path of a gunshot or stab wound to the flank could track in any direction. Once inside the abdominal cavity, bullets may ricochet off the bony structures of the spine and produce a unique bullet path and injury pattern. The extent of injury caused by a projectile depends on its velocity, with higher-velocity objects causing more injury than lower-velocity objects, as well as on the construction of the projectile, which affects the movement of the object once inside the abdominal cavity. The greater the surface area interface, the greater is the tissue damage. Stabbing injuries are low velocity and induce injury through direct contact with tissue.5


Obtain information about the mechanism of injury, how much time has passed since the event, and the nature of the weapon. In the case of a gunshot wound, determine the nature of the gun (e.g., shotgun, handgun, BB gun) and the distance between the gun and the patient at the time of the gun's discharge. For gunshot wounds, attempt to identify an exit wound and reconstruct the bullet path. For stab wounds, determine the size of the weapon and, if possible, estimate a measure of the depth of penetration. Perform a rectal examination because the presence of red blood in the stool may indicate bowel injury. Note any blood around the urinary meatus or blood in a Foley catheter drainage that would suggest bladder or urethral injury.


Patients with penetrating flank trauma who are ...

Pop-up div Successfully Displayed

This div only appears when the trigger link is hovered over. Otherwise it is hidden from view.