Tracheostomy is an operative procedure that creates a surgical airway in the cervical trachea.
It is most often performed in patients who have had difficulty weaning off a ventilator, followed by those who have suffered trauma or a catastrophic neurologic insult.
Infectious and neoplastic processes are less common in diseases that require a surgical airway.
Tracheostomy is a utilitarian surgical procedure of access; therefore, it should be discussed in light of the problem it addresses: access to the tracheobronchial tree. The trachea is a conduit between the upper airway and the lungs that delivers moist warm air and expels carbon dioxide and sputum. Failure or blockage at any point along that conduit can be most readily corrected with the provision of access for mechanical ventilators and suction equipment. In the case of upper airway obstruction, tracheostomy provides a path of low resistance for air exchange.
The traditional semantic difference between tracheostomy and tracheotomy is now blurred because the hole is variably permanent. If a cannula is in place, an unsutured opening heals into a patent stoma within a week. If decannulation is performed (ie, the tracheostomy cannula is removed), the hole usually closes in a similar amount of time. The cut edges of the tracheal opening can be sutured to the skin with a few absorbable sutures to facilitate cannulation and, if necessary, recannulation can be performed. Alternatively, a permanent stoma can be created with circumferential sutures. The term tracheostomy is used, by convention, for all these procedures and is considered to be synonymous with tracheotomy.
The trachea is nearly but not quite cylindrical but is flattened posteriorly. In cross-section, it is D-shaped, with incomplete cartilaginous rings anteriorly and laterally, and a straight membranous wall posteriorly. The trachea measures about 11 cm in length and is chondromembranous. This structure starts from the inferior part of the larynx (cricoid cartilage) in the neck, opposite the 6th cervical vertebra, to the intervertebral disc between T4-5 vertebrae in the thorax, where it divides at the carina into the right and left main stem bronchi. For more information about the relevant anatomy, see Trachea Anatomy.