To the Editor:—  I read with great interest the study of mouth opening and craniocervical extension by Calder et al.  1Although the authors were circumspect in their interpretation, the relation between extension and mouth opening may provide an important basis for laryngoscopic positioning. Adnet et al.  2demonstrated that for routine intubation, the “sniffing position” does not confer any advantage over simple head extension. Put another way (again, for routine intubation), the essential advantage of the sniffing position over the neutral position results from head extension. Other studies of Adnet et al.  3,4have shown that neither the sniffing position nor simple extension result in the alignment of the oral, laryngeal, and pharyngeal axes. Collectively, these data resulted in a fundamental question: If extension is the essential advantage of the sniffing position over neutrality and extension does not align the oral, laryngeal, and pharyngeal axes, wherein lies its value? The study of Calder et al.  makes an important step toward an answer: The value of extension may be that it facilitates mouth opening rather than axis alignment.

It has clearly been shown that limitations of mouth opening are associated with difficult intubation. 5,6The study by Karkouti et al.  6demonstrates that poor mouth opening and craniocervical extension are predictive of difficult intubation. These two “independent” variables have now been shown to be linked, suggesting that limitation of interdental distance is the ultimate disadvantage imposed by impaired extension. It is of interest to consider whether other predictors of difficult intubation, such as micrognathia or decreased thyromental distance, are also related to mouth opening or impaired extension. It is of further interest to consider the Mallampati classification as another measure of mouth opening. Mouth opening is expressed as interdental distance in the study of Calder et al. , whereas with the Mallampati classification, it can be expressed as palatoglossal distance. Stated another way, interdental distance reflects true mouth opening, while palatoglossal distance reflects effective mouth opening, i.e. , the actual volume of free space achievable in the oral cavity independent of the interdental distance. When either interdental or palatoglossal distance are limited by conditions such a decreased cervical mobility, micrognathia, or hyperglossia, intubation is rendered more difficult.

The study of Calder et al. , in conjunction with the studies cited above, suggests that craniocervical extension is a crucial aspect of laryngoscopic positioning and that its value lies in optimizing the degree of interdental distance. As the authors suggest, the next step is to investigate this in the setting of true laryngoscopic positioning, evaluating the maximal gape-facilitating angle of extension in anesthetized patients whose oral airways are actively being manipulated. I would further suggest that mouth opening—delineated as true (inter-dental distance) and effective (palatoglossal distance)—may emerge as the most important measure of difficult intubation and that its maximization may form the basis of rational laryngoscopic positioning.

Calder I, Picard J, Chapman M, O’Sullivan C, Crockard HA: Mouth opening: A new angle. Anesthesiology 2003; 99:799–801
Adnet F, Baillard C, Borron SW, Denantes C, Lefebvre, Galinski M, Martinez C, Cupa M, Lapostolle F: Randomized study comparing the “sniffing position” with simple head extension for laryngoscopic view in elective surgery patients. Anesthesiology 2001; 95:836–41
Adnet F, Lapostelle F, Lapandry C: The three axis alignment theory and the “sniffing position”: Perpetuation of an anatomic myth? Anesthesiology 1999; 1964–5
Adnet F, Borron SW, Lapostolle F, Cupa M, Lapandry C: Study of the “sniffing position” by magnetic resonance imaging. Anesthesiology 2001; 94:83–6
el-Ganzouri AR, McCarthy RJ, Tuman KJ, Tanck EN, Ivankovich AD: Preoperative airway assessment: Predictive value of a multivariate risk index. Anesth Analg 1996; 82:1197–204
Karkouti K, Rose DK, Wigglesworth D, Cohen MM: Predicting difficult intubation: A multivariable analysis. Can J Anaesth 2000; 47:730–9