Pneumothorax is a collection of air or gas in the chest or pleural space that causes part or all of a lung to collapse.
Normally, the pressure in the lungs is greater than the pressure in the pleural space surrounding the lungs. However, if air enters the pleural space, the pressure in the pleura then becomes greater than the pressure in the lungs, causing the lung to collapse partially or completely. Pneumothorax can be either spontaneous or due to trauma.
If a pneumothorax occurs suddenly or for no known reason, it is called a spontaneous pneumothorax. This condition most often strikes tall, thin men between the ages of 20 to 40. In addition, people with lung disorders, such as emphysema, cystic fibrosis, and tuberculosis, are at higher risk for spontaneous pneumothorax. Traumatic pneumothorax is the result of accident or injury due to medical procedures performed to the chest cavity, such as thoracentesis or mechanical ventilation. Tension pneumothorax is a serious and potentially life-threatening condition that may be caused by traumatic injury, chronic lung disease, or as a complication of a medical procedure. In this type of pneumothorax, air enters the chest cavity, but cannot escape. This greatly increased pressure in the pleural space causes the lung to collapse completely, compresses the heart, and pushes the heart and associated blood vessels toward the unaffected side.
Causes and symptoms
The symptoms of pneumothrax depend on how much air enters the chest, how much the lung collapses, and the extent of lung disease. Symptoms include the following, according to the cause of the pneumothorax:
- Spontaneous pneumothorax. Simple spontaneous pneumothorax is caused by a rupture of a small air sac or fluid-filled sac in the lung. It may be related to activity in otherwise healthy people or may occur during scuba diving or flying at high altitudes. Complicated spontaneous pneumothorax, also generally caused by rupture of a small sac in the lung, occurs in people with lung diseases. The symptoms of complicated spontaneous pneumothorax tend to be worse than those of simple pneumothorax, due to the underlying lung disease. Spontaneous pneumothorax is characterized by dull, sharp, or stabbing chest pain that begins suddenly and becomes worse with deep breathing or coughing. Other symptoms are shortness of breath, rapid breathing, abnormal breathing movement (that is, little chest wall movement when breathing), and cough.
- Tension pneumothorax. Following trauma, air may enter the chest cavity. A penetrating chest wound allows out-side air to enter the chest, causing the lung to collapse. Certain medical procedures performed in the chest cavity, such as thoracentesis, also may cause a lung to collapse. Tension pneumothorax may be the immediate result of an injury; the delayed complication of a hidden injury, such as a fractured rib, that punctures the lung; or the result of lung damage from asthma, chronic bronchitis, or emphysema. Symptoms of tension pneumothorax tend to be severe with sudden onset. There is
- marked anxiety, distended neck veins, weak pulse, decreased breath sounds on the affected side, and a shift of the mediastinum to the opposite side.
To diagnose pneumothorax, it is necessary for the health care provider to listen to the chest (auscultation) during a physical examination. By using a stethoscope, the physician may note that one part of the chest does not transmit the normal sounds of breathing. A chest x ray will show the air pocket and the collapsed lung. An electrocardiogram (ECG) will be performed to record the electrical impulses that control the heart's activity. Blood samples may be taken to check for the level of arterial blood gases.
A small pneumothorax may resolve on its own, but most require medical treatment. The object of treatment is to remove air from the chest and allow the lung to re-expand. This is done by inserting a needle and syringe (if the pneumothorax is small) or chest tube through the chest wall. This allows the air to escape without allowing any air back in. The lung will then re-expand itself within a few days. Surgery may be needed for repeat occurrences.
Most people recover fully from spontaneous pneumothorax. Up to half of patients with spontaneous pneumothorax experience recurrence. Recovery from a collapsed lung generally takes one to two weeks. Tension pneumothorax can cause death rapidly due to inadequate heart output or insufficient blood oxygen (hypoxemia), and must be treated as a medical emergency.
Preventive measures for a non-injury related pneumothorax include stopping smoking and seeking medical attention for respiratory problems. If the pneumothorax occurs in both lungs or more than once in the same lung, surgery may be needed to prevent it from occurring again.
Light, Richard. "Disorders of the Pleura, Mediastinum, and Diaphragm." In Harrison's Principles of Internal Medicine, ed. Anthony S. Fauci, et al. New York: McGraw-Hill, 1997.
American Association for Respiratory Care. 11030 Ables Lane, Dallas, TX 75229. (972) 243-2272. <http://www.aarc.org>.
American Lung Association. 1740 Broadway, New York, NY 10019. (800) 586-4872. <http://www.lungusa.org>.
"Collapsed Lung: Non-Injury-Related." InteliHealth Page. 19 June 1998 <http://www.intelihealth.com>.
"Spontaneous Pneumothorax." HealthAnswers.com. <http://www.healthanswers.com>.
Lorraine Steefel, RN
Electrocardiagram—A test that provides a typical record of normal heart action.
Mediastinum—The space between the right and left lung.
Pleural—Pleural refers to the pleura or membrane that enfolds the lungs.
Thoracentesis—Also called a pleural fluid tap, this procedure involves aspiration of fluid from the pleural space using a long, thin needle inserted between the ribs.