What is a pneumothorax?
“Pneumothorax” is the medical term for a collapsed lung. Pneumothorax occurs when air enters the space around your lungs (the pleural space). Air can find its way into the pleural space when there’s an open injury in your chest wall or a tear or rupture in your lung tissue, disrupting the pressure that keeps your lungs inflated.
Causes of ruptured or injured chest or lung walls can include lung disease, injury from a sport or accident, assisted breathing with a ventilator, or even changes in air pressure that you experience when scuba diving or mountain climbing. Sometimes the cause of a pneumothorax is unknown.
The change in pressure caused by an opening in your chest or lung wall can cause the lung to collapse and put pressure on the heart.
The condition ranges in severity. If there’s only a small amount of air trapped in the pleural space, as can be the case in a spontaneous pneumothorax, it can often heal on its own if there have been no further complications.
More serious cases that involve larger volumes of air can become fatal if left untreated.
The two basic types of pneumothorax are traumatic pneumothorax and nontraumatic pneumothorax. Either type can lead to a tension pneumothorax if the air surrounding the lung increases in pressure. A tension pneumothorax is common in cases of trauma and requires emergency medical treatment.
Traumatic pneumothorax occurs after some type of trauma or injury has happened to the chest or lung wall. It can be a minor or significant injury. The trauma can damage chest structures and cause air to leak into the pleural space.
Examples of injuries that can cause a traumatic pneumothorax include:
- trauma to the chest from a motor vehicle accident
- broken ribs
- a hard hit to the chest from a contact sport, such as from a football tackle
- a stab wound or bullet wound to the chest
- medical procedures that can damage the lung, such as a central line placement, ventilator use, lung biopsies, or CPR
Changes in air pressure from scuba diving or mountain climbing can also cause a traumatic pneumothorax. The change in altitude can result in air blisters developing on your lungs and then rupturing, leading to the lung collapsing.
Quick treatment of a pneumothorax due to significant chest trauma is critical. The symptoms are often severe, and they could contribute to potentially fatal complications such as cardiac arrest, respiratory failure, shock, and death.
This type of pneumothorax doesn’t occur after injury. Instead, it happens spontaneously, which is why it’s also referred to as spontaneous pneumothorax.
There are two major types of spontaneous pneumothorax: primary and secondary. Primary spontaneous pneumothorax (PSP) occurs in people who have no known lung disease, often affecting young males who are tall and thin. Secondary spontaneous pneumothorax (SSP) tends to occur in older people with known lung problems.
Some conditions that increase your risk of SSP include:
- chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), such as emphysema or chronic bronchitis
- acute or chronic infection, such as tuberculosis or pneumonia
- lung cancer
- cystic fibrosis, a genetic lung disease that causes mucus to build up in the lungs
- asthma, a chronic obstructive airway disease that causes inflammation
Spontaneous hemopneumothorax (SHP) is a rare subtype of spontaneous pneumothorax. It occurs when both blood and air fill the pleural cavity without any recent trauma or history of lung disease.
The symptoms of a traumatic pneumothorax often appear at the time of chest trauma or injury, or shortly afterward. The onset of symptoms for a spontaneous pneumothorax normally occurs at rest. A sudden attack of chest pain is often the first symptom.
Other symptoms may include:
- a steady ache in the chest
- shortness of breath, or dyspnea
- breaking out in a cold sweat
- tightness in the chest
- turning blue, or cyanosis
- severe tachycardia, or a fast heart rate
The risk factors are different for a traumatic and spontaneous pneumothorax.
Risk factors for a traumatic pneumothorax include:
- playing hard contact sports, such as football or hockey
- performing stunts that may cause damage to the chest
- having a history of violent fighting
- having a recent car accident or fall from a height
- recent medical procedure or ongoing assisted respiratory care
The people at highest risk for a PSP are those who are:
- between the ages of 10 and 30
- affected by congenital disorders like Marfan’s syndrome
- exposed to environmental or occupational factors, such as silicosis
- exposed to changes in atmospheric pressure and severe weather changes
The main risk factor for SSP is having previously been diagnosed with a lung disease. It’s more common in people over 40.
Diagnosis is based on the presence of air in the space around the lungs. A stethoscope may pick up changes in lungs sounds, but detecting a small pneumothorax can be difficult. Some imaging tests may be hard to interpret due to the air’s position between the chest wall and lung.
Imaging tests commonly used to diagnose pneumothorax include:
- an upright posteroanterior chest radiograph
- a CT scan
- a thoracic ultrasound
Treatment will depend on the severity of your condition. It will also depend on whether you’ve experienced pneumothorax before and what symptoms you are experiencing. Both surgical and nonsurgical treatments are available.
Treatment options can include close observation combined with the insertion of chest tubes, or more invasive surgical procedures to resolve and prevent further collapse of the lung. Oxygen may be administered.
Observation or “watchful waiting” is typically recommended for those with a small PSP and who aren’t short of breath. In this case, your doctor will monitor your condition on a regular basis as the air absorbs from the pleural space. Frequent X-rays will be taken to check if your lung has fully expanded again. Your doctor will likely instruct you to avoid air travel until the pneumothorax as completely resolved.
Routine physical activity hasn’t been shown to worsen or delay healing of a pneumothorax. However, it’s often advised that intense physical activity or high-contact sports be delayed until the lung is fully healed and the pneumothorax is gone.
A pneumothorax can cause oxygen levels to drop in some people. This condition is called hypoxemia. If this is the case, your doctor will order oxygen supplementation along with activity limitations.
Draining excess air
Needle aspiration and chest tube insertion are two procedures designed to remove excess air from the pleural space in the chest. These can be done at the bedside without requiring general anesthesia.
Needle aspiration may be less uncomfortable than placement of a chest tube, but it’s also more likely to need to be repeated.
For a chest tube insertion, your doctor will insert a hollowed tube between your ribs. This allows air to drain and the lung to reinflate. The chest tube may remain in place for several days if a large pneumothorax exists.
Pleurodesis is a more invasive form of treatment for a pneumothorax. This procedure is commonly recommended for individuals who’ve had repeated episodes of pneumothorax.
During pleurodesis, your doctor irritates the pleural space so that air and fluid can no longer accumulate. The term “pleura” refers to the membrane surrounding each lung. Pleurodesis is performed to make your lungs’ membranes stick to the chest cavity. Once the pleura adheres to the chest wall, the pleural space no longer expands, and this prevents formation of a future pneumothorax.
Mechanical pleurodesis is performed manually. During surgery, your surgeon brushes the pleura to cause inflammation. Chemical pleurodesis is another form of treatment. Your doctor will deliver chemical irritants to the pleura through a chest tube. The irritation and inflammation cause the lung pleura and chest wall lining to stick together.
Surgical treatment for pneumothorax is required in certain situations. You may need surgery if you’ve had a repeated spontaneous pneumothorax. A large amount of air trapped in your chest cavity or other lung conditions may also warrant surgical repair.
There are several types of surgery for pneumothorax. One option is a thoracotomy. During this surgery, your surgeon will create an incision in the pleural space to help them see the problem. Once your surgeon has performed a thoracotomy, they’ll decide what must be done to help you heal.
Another option is thoracoscopy, also known as video-assisted thoracoscopic surgery (VATS). Your surgeon inserts a tiny camera through your chest wall to help them see inside your chest. A thoracoscopy can help your surgeon decide on the treatment for your pneumothorax. The possibilities include sewing blisters closed, closing air leaks, or removing the collapsed portion of your lung, which is called a lobectomy.
Your long-term outlook depends on the size of the pneumothorax, as well as the cause and treatment required. In general, a small pneumothorax that doesn’t cause significant symptoms can resolve with observation or minimal treatment. When a pneumothorax is large, results from trauma, affects both lungs, or is due to an underlying lung disease, treatment and recovery may be more complicated. A pneumothorax that continues to reoccur can be even more challenging to treat.
Having one pneumothorax increases the odds for a second. Get medical attention as soon as possible if your symptoms occur again. In many cases, less than 5 percent of people who’ve had surgery in combination with pleurodesis to repair a pneumothorax have pneumothorax develop again.