Atelectasis can result from an obstruction (blockage) of the airways that affects tiny air scas called alveoli. Alveoli are very thin-walled and contain a rich blood supply. They are important for lung function, since their purpose is the exchange of oxygen and carbon dioxide. When the airways are blocked by a mucous "plug," foreign object, or tumor, the alveoli are unable to fill with air and collapse of lung tissue can occur in the affected area. Atelectasis is a potential complication following surgery, especially in individuals who have undergone chest or abdominal operations resulting in associated abdominal or chest pain during breathing. Congenital atelectasis can result from a failure of the lungs to expand at birth. This congenital condition may be localized or may affect all of both lungs.
Causes and symptoms
Causes of atelectasis include insufficient attemps at respiration by the newborn, bronchial obstruction, or absence of surfactant (a substance secreted by alveoli that maintains the stability of lung tissue by reducing the surface tension of fluids that coat the lung). This lack of surfactant reduces the surface area available for effective gas exchange causing it to collapse if severe. Pressure on the lung from fluid or air can cause atelectasis as well as obstruction of lung air passages by thick mucus resulting from various infections and lung diseases. Tumors and inhaled objects can also cause obstruction of the airway, leading to atelectasis.
Anyone undergoing chest or abdominal surgery using general anesthesia is at risk to develop atelectasis, since breathing is often shallow after surgery to avoid pain from the surgical incision. Any significant decrease in airflow to the alveoli contributes to pooling of secretions, which in turn can cause infection. Chest injuries causing shallow breathing, including fractured ribs, can cause atelectasis. Common symptoms of atelectasis include shortness of breath and decreased chest wall expansion. If atelectasis only afects a small area of the lung, symptoms are ususally minimal. If the condition affects a large area of the lung and develops quickly, the individual may turn blue (cyanotic) or pale, have extreme shortness of breath, and feel a stabbing pain on the affected side. Fever and increased heart rate may be present if infection accompanies atelectasis.
To diagnose atelectasis, a doctor starts by recording the patient's symptoms and performing a thorough physical examination. When the doctor listens to the lungs through a stethoscope (ausculation), diminished or bronchial breath sounds may be heard. By tapping on the chest (percussion) while listening through the stethoscope, the doctor can often tell if the lung is collapsed. A chest x ray that shows an airless area in the lung confirms the diagnosis of atelectasis. If an obstruction of the airways is suspected, a computed tomography scan (CT) or bronchoscopy may be performed to locate the cause of the blockage.
If atelectasis is due to obstruction of the airway, the first step in treatment is to remove the cause of the blockage. This may be done by coughing, suctioning, or bronchoscopy. If a tumor is the cause of atelectasis, surgery may be necessary to remove it. Antibiotics are commonly used to fight the infection that often accompanies atelectasis. In cases where recurrent or long-lasting infection is disabling or where significant bleeding occurs, the affected section of the lung may be surgically removed.
If atelectasis is caused by a thick mucus "plug" or inhaled foreign object, the patient usually recovers completely when the blockage is removed. If it is caused by a tumor, the outcome depends on the nature of the tumor involved. If atelectasis is a result of surgery, other post-operative conditions and/or complications affect the prognosis.
When recovering from surgery, frequent repositioning in bed along with coughing and deep breathing are important. Coughing and breathing deeply every one to two hours after any surgical operation with general anesthesia is recommended. Breathing exercises and the use of breathing devices, such as an incentive spirometer, may also help prevent atelectasis. Although smokers have a higher risk of developing atelectasis following surgery, stopping smoking six to eight weeks before surgery can help reduce the risk. Increasing fluid intake during respiratory illness or after surgery (by mouth or intravenously) helps lung secretions to remain loose. Increasing humidity may also be beneficial.
Postural drainage techniques can be learned from a respiratory therapist or physical therapist and are a useful tool for anyone affected with a respiratiory illness that could cause atelectasis. Because foreign objects blocking the airway can cause atelectasis, it is very important to keep small objects that might be inhaled away from young children.
Banasik, Jacquelyn L. "Restrictive Pulmonary Disorders." In Perspectives on Pathophysiology. Ed. Lee-Ellen C. Copstead. Philadelphia: W. B. Saunders Co., 1994.
Chandrasoma, Parakrama, and Clive R. Taylor. Concise Pathology. East Norwalk, CT: Appleton & Lange, 1991.
National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute. PO Box 30105, Bethesda, MD 20824-0105. (301) 251-1222. <http://www.nhlbi.nih.gov>.
Jeffrey P. Larson, RPT
Alveoli—Tiny air sacs in the lungs where gas exchange takes place between alveolar air and pulmonary blood within the capillaries
Bronchial—Relating to the air passages to and from the lungs including the bronchi and the bronchioles.
Bronchoscopy—A procedure in which a hollow, flexible tube is inserted into the airway to allow visual examination of the larynx, trachea, bronchi, and bronchioles. It is also used to collect specimens for biopsy or culturing and to remove airway obstructions.
Incentive spirometer—A breathing device that provides feedback on performance to encourage deep breathing.
Mucus—A thin, slippery film secreted by the mucous membranes and glands.
Postural drainage—Techniques to help expel excess mucus by specific poistions of the body (that decrease the effects of gravity) combined with manual percussion and vibration over various parts of the lung.
Surfactant—A substance secreted by the alveoli in the lungs that reduces the surface tension of lung fluids, allowing gas exchange and helping maintain the elasticity of lung tissue.
Tumor—An abnormal growth of tissue resulting from uncontrolled, progressive multiplication of cells.