An emergency tourniquet is a highly effective tool when you need to stop severe external bleeding due to a puncture or laceration injury to a limb. When emergency care is unavailable, proper application of a tourniquet can be life-saving.
Understand what a tourniquet is, when it’s appropriate to make and apply one, and how to tie it properly if an accident occurs.
What is a Tourniquet?
The tourniquet meaning comes from the French verb “to turn” and dates to 1674, when it was first used on the battlefield in the battle of Flanders. The tourniquet definition refers to a device that applies pressure to a limb to limit blood flow to a wound.
A tourniquet can play a vital role in saving lives in accidents, natural disasters, terrorist attacks, and shootings. Consider incorporating a tourniquet into your everyday carry (EDC) loadout or keeping one in your vehicle.
Like your concealed carry firearm, a tourniquet can keep you and your loved ones alive under the worst possible conditions. However, it should only be used if life-threatening bleeding to the extremities cannot be controlled with direct pressure.
How to Make a Tourniquet
While a commercial tourniquet should be part of your first aid or trauma kit, there are times when you’ll need to improvise. As long as the material is sturdy, you can use triangular bandages, belts, or clothing as a makeshift tourniquet.
To use clothing, you’ll need to cut it to a width of two to four inches to evenly distribute the pressure on the skin. Towels, scarves, bandanas, shirt sleeves, pant legs, and other strips of fabric work for this purpose. Avoid using cables and cords that cut into the skin, causing additional injury without effectively slowing blood loss.
You’ll also need something to serve as a windlass (a rod that works as a rotating mechanism) to tighten the improvised tourniquet, like a stick or similarly shaped object. Pens, screwdrivers, and some eating utensils, such as blunt spoons, can also fulfill this role.
How to Apply a Tourniquet
Learning how to use a tourniquet properly is critical to the safety of the injured person. Improper application of a tourniquet or prolonged use can result in limb ischemia, nerve paralysis, and other serious conditions.
Before attempting to apply a tourniquet, determine whether there are alternative methods you can use to reduce or stop the bleeding. You should only use a tourniquet when applying direct pressure is impossible or fails to stop the bleeding.
You’ll need to act fast because rapid bleeding can cause death in a matter of minutes. It’s also important to contact emergency services as soon as possible.
Tourniquets are only suitable for injuries to limbs because they limit blood flow to that region of the body. Head or torso injuries require you to slow or stop bleeding by applying pressure with a material that can absorb the blood.
Find the source of the injury
Once you find the source of the injury, start by applying direct pressure to the wound. If this doesn’t slow or stop the bleeding, a tourniquet may be necessary. If the victim is conscious, inform them of your intent to apply a tourniquet.
Place above the injury
If the site of the injury is clothed, remove this material. For the tourniquet to be effective, you need to place it against exposed skin. Place the tourniquet above the wound, not below it, and on the part of the limb closest to the heart. If there’s an injury below or to a joint, position the tourniquet above the joint, never directly on it.
Tighten the tourniquet to limit blood flow
Once you’ve located the injury and wrapped the tourniquet around the limb, you need to know how to tie a tourniquet to stop the bleeding. After you’ve securely fastened a tourniquet to the limb, you’ll need to apply pressure to compress the blood vessels and constrict the blood flow. Tourniquets use a device called a windlass for this purpose. This is a handle or bar that you rotate to twist the material.
As you rotate the windlass, you create a knot that allows you to apply additional downward pressure against the limb surface with minimum effort. Continue to rotate the windlass until the bleeding stops and tie the ends to the patient’s limb to keep it in place.
Note the time
Write the time that you applied the tourniquet on the patient’s forearm, clothing, or another place that’s highly visible. This information is essential to paramedics and hospital staff because a tourniquet should be removed every two hours to assess the bleeding. If the bleeding has stopped, you can replace the tourniquet with a pressure bandage to reduce the likelihood of tissue damage.
Mistakes to Avoid
There are several mistakes to avoid in the application and tying of a tourniquet to reduce the likelihood of harming the injured person:
For a tourniquet to be effective, you need to fasten it tightly to the injured limb. A loose tourniquet will fail to slow or stop the bleeding, jeopardizing the patient’s life.
Waiting too long
If you think applying a tourniquet may be necessary, time is critical. Every minute that passes without intervention increases the risk of unconsciousness, shock, and death.
Once you’ve applied a tourniquet, you don’t need to loosen it periodically. Leave it in place — only a trained medical professional should loosen or remove the tourniquet. Loosening the tourniquet can cause blood to return to the injury, potentially damaging blood vessels.
Protect and Retain Your Life-Saving Tools
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