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What is a Pneumothorax: Causes,Symptoms & Treatment | Max Hospital

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Pneumothorax (Collapsed Lung): Everything You Need to Know

By Medical Expert Team

Jun 26 , 2024 | 12 min read

Lungs are among the most intricate organs in the human body, and many unforeseen disruptions can compromise its delicate equilibrium, impacting their functioning. One such disruption is Pneumothorax. Commonly called “collapsed lung” or “punctured lung”, pneumothorax is a condition marked by the accumulation of air in the pleural space surrounding the lungs. This medical phenomenon can induce discomfort, hinder breathing, and if not treated in time, can have life-threatening consequences. In this article, we explore the complexities of pneumothorax, with an aim to unravel the intricacies that underlie this respiratory challenge and explore the implications it holds for those affected. Let’s start with understanding the basics. 

What is a Pneumothorax?

Pneumothorax is a medical condition characterised by the presence of air in the pleural space, the area between the lung and the chest wall. This accumulation of air can disrupt the normal pressure balance in the pleural cavity, leading to the collapse of the lung. Understanding pneumothorax is crucial for timely diagnosis and appropriate management to ensure the best possible outcomes for individuals facing this respiratory challenge.

What Causes a Pneumothorax?

Pneumothorax can be attributed to various causes, broadly categorised into medical conditions, injuries, and lifestyle factors.

Medical conditions

  • Asthma: In individuals with asthma, the airways may become inflamed and constricted, increasing the risk of air leakage into the pleural space.
  • Pneumonia: Inflammation and infection of the lung tissue in pneumonia can lead to the development of air-filled sacs, known as blebs or bullae, which may rupture, causing pneumothorax.
  • Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease (COPD): COPD, including conditions like chronic bronchitis and emphysema, can weaken lung tissue, making it more prone to air leaks.
  • Collagen vascular disease: Conditions affecting connective tissue, such as certain collagen vascular diseases, may contribute to the development of pneumothorax.
  • Cystic fibrosis: This genetic disorder leads to the production of thick, sticky mucus that can block airways and contribute to lung damage, increasing the risk of pneumothorax.
  • Emphysema: Emphysema, a type of COPD, results in the destruction of lung tissue and the formation of large air spaces, increasing vulnerability to pneumothorax.
  • Idiopathic pulmonary fibrosis: Scarring of the lung tissue in idiopathic pulmonary fibrosis can create an environment conducive to air leaks.
  • Lung cancer: Tumours in the lung can disrupt normal lung structure, potentially leading to pneumothorax.
  • Tuberculosis: In tuberculosis, infection and inflammation can contribute to the formation of cavities in the lung, increasing the likelihood of air leakage.
  • Acute Respiratory Distress Syndrome (ARDS): Severe lung inflammation in ARDS can lead to structural damage, increasing the risk of pneumothorax.
  • Lymphangioleiomyomatosis: A rare lung disease causing the growth of abnormal smooth muscle cells, LAM can lead to the formation of cystic spaces, increasing the risk of pneumothorax.

Injuries

  • Blunt force trauma: Accidents causing a forceful impact to the chest, such as falls or car accidents, can result in pneumothorax.
  • Penetrating Injuries: Gunshot wounds or stab wounds can directly puncture the lung, leading to pneumothorax.
  • Medical Procedures: Certain medical interventions, including nerve blocks, lung biopsies, central venous line placement, or mechanical ventilation, can inadvertently cause pneumothorax.

Lifestyle factors

  • Drug use: Inhaled drug abuse, such as the recreational use of substances, can increase the risk of pneumothorax.
  • Smoking: Tobacco smoke can damage lung tissue, contributing to the development of air leaks and pneumothorax.
  • Changes in air pressure: Activities involving drastic changes in air pressure, like flying or scuba and deep-sea diving, can contribute to pneumothorax, especially in individuals with pre-existing lung conditions.

Understanding the diverse array of causes for pneumothorax is crucial for accurate diagnosis and effective management based on the specific underlying factors.

What are the Types of Collapsed Lungs?

Pneumothorax, or collapsed lungs, is generally categorised into two main types: traumatic pneumothorax and spontaneous pneumothorax.

Spontaneous pneumothorax

  • Primary spontaneous pneumothorax: This type occurs in individuals without pre-existing lung conditions. It is often associated with the presence of small air-filled sacs called blebs or bullae on the lung surface. These structures can rupture spontaneously, allowing air to escape into the pleural space and causing the lung to collapse.
  • Secondary spontaneous pneumothorax: Individuals with underlying lung diseases, such as chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), cystic fibrosis, or tuberculosis, are more susceptible to spontaneous pneumothorax. The weakened lung tissue associated with these conditions increases the likelihood of air leaks.

Traumatic pneumothorax

  • Blunt or penetrating trauma: Accidents or injuries that result in a forceful impact to the chest can cause the lung to collapse. This may include incidents such as car accidents, falls, or direct blows to the chest. Penetrating injuries, such as gunshot wounds or stab wounds, can also introduce air into the pleural space.
  • Iatrogenic pneumothorax: Certain medical interventions, intended for diagnostic or therapeutic purposes, can lead to pneumothorax. For example, lung biopsies or procedures involving positive pressure ventilation (such as mechanical ventilation) may disrupt the lung tissue and result in the escape of air into the pleural space.

Other types of pneumothorax

In addition to the aforementioned, pneumothorax can also be of the following types:

  • Tension pneumothorax: Tension pneumothorax manifests when air can enter the lungs but struggles to exit, creating a one-way valve effect. This results in increased pressure within the chest, which compresses the lung and shifts the mediastinum. Recognized as a critical medical emergency, tension pneumothorax necessitates immediate intervention.
  • Catamenial pneumothorax: Catamenial pneumothorax, a rare occurrence associated with endometriosis, unfolds when endometrial tissue outside the uterus forms cysts that bleed into the pleural space, precipitating lung collapse. This distinctive condition is characterised by chest pain and breathing difficulties, often coinciding with the menstrual cycle. 

What are the Symptoms of a Pneumothorax?

The symptoms of a pneumothorax, which can vary in intensity depending on the size and nature of the air leak, typically include:

  • Chest pain: Individuals often experience sharp or stabbing pain on the side of the chest where the pneumothorax occurs. The pain may worsen during breathing or coughing.
  • Shortness of breath: Difficulty breathing, or a sensation of breathlessness, is a common symptom. This arises as the collapsed lung limits the capacity for air exchange.
  • Rapid heart rate: Increased heart rate, known as tachycardia, may occur as the body attempts to compensate for reduced oxygen levels.
  • Shallow breathing: Shallow or rapid breathing may be observed as the affected lung's ability to expand is compromised.
  • Cyanosis: In severe cases, a bluish discoloration of the lips and skin (cyanosis) may occur due to inadequate oxygenation.
  • Decreased breath sounds: There may be reduced or absent breath sounds on the affected side of the chest during a physical examination.

What are the Risk Factors for Pneumothorax?

Several factors can contribute to an increased risk of developing pneumothorax. These risk factors include:

  • Genetic factors: Some individuals may have a genetic predisposition to developing blebs or bullae on the lung surface, making them more susceptible to spontaneous pneumothorax.
  • Trauma: Accidents or injuries, such as falls, car accidents, or direct blows to the chest, can cause air to enter the pleural space and lead to pneumothorax.
  • Lung diseases: Individuals with pre-existing lung conditions, such as chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), cystic fibrosis, or tuberculosis, are at a higher risk due to weakened lung tissue.
  • Smoking: Tobacco smoking is a significant risk factor for pneumothorax. The toxins in cigarette smoke can damage lung tissue and increase the likelihood of air leaks.
  • Medical procedures: Certain medical interventions, including lung biopsies, positive pressure ventilation (such as mechanical ventilation), or the insertion of central venous catheters, can inadvertently lead to pneumothorax.
  • Catamenial pneumothorax: Women with endometriosis may be at risk for catamenial pneumothorax, a rare condition associated with the presence of endometrial tissue in the chest cavity.
  • Age: Pneumothorax is more common in tall, thin individuals, and it often occurs in young adults.
  • Previous pneumothorax: Individuals who have experienced a pneumothorax in the past are at an increased risk of recurrence.

Understanding these risk factors is essential for identifying individuals who may be more prone to developing pneumothorax and implementing appropriate preventive measures or monitoring. Additionally, addressing modifiable risk factors, such as smoking, can help reduce the overall risk of pneumothorax.

What are the Complications of a Pneumothorax?

  • Re-expansion pulmonary edema: Re-expansion pulmonary edema is a rare but serious complication that may occur after the treatment of a pneumothorax. This condition manifests when the lung re-expands too rapidly, leading to the accumulation of fluid in the lungs. Individuals experiencing re-expansion pulmonary edema may exhibit increased difficulty breathing, persistent coughing, and chest pain.
  • Damage or infection from treatment: Interventions such as chest tube insertion or surgery carry a risk of damaging lung tissue or introducing infection. Symptoms may include heightened pain and signs of infection, such as fever or increased redness and swelling at the treatment site. 
  • Respiratory failure: Marked by an inability to sustain adequate respiratory function, respiratory failure is a critical complication of pneumothorax, particularly tension pneumothorax. Individuals experiencing respiratory failure may exhibit severe shortness of breath and low oxygen levels. In such cases, immediate medical intervention is necessary.
  • Heart failure: Heart failure is another potential complication of severe pneumothorax. The pressure exerted on the heart can lead to signs of heart failure, such as edema, fatigue, and difficulty breathing. Managing the underlying causes, including resolving the pneumothorax and addressing associated complications, is crucial to prevent or mitigate heart failure. 

How is Pneumothorax Diagnosed?

Pneumothorax is diagnosed through a combination of medical history, physical examination, and imaging studies. The diagnostic process typically involves the following steps:

  • Evaluation of medical history: The doctor will inquire about the individual's symptoms, such as sudden chest pain and difficulty breathing. Information about any underlying lung conditions, previous pneumothorax episodes, recent injuries, or medical procedures will be gathered.
  • Physical examination: The doctor will perform a thorough physical examination, which may include listening to the chest with a stethoscope to assess breath sounds and checking for signs of respiratory distress. Chest movement, chest wall tenderness, and any asymmetry in chest expansion may be evaluated.
  • Imaging studies: Chest X-ray is typically used to reveal the presence of air in the pleural space and any resulting lung collapse. In some cases, where the diagnosis is unclear or a more detailed assessment is needed, a CT scan may be performed. In addition, ultrasound imaging may be used at the bedside to detect the presence of air in the pleural space. 
  • Arterial Blood Gas (ABG) test: Blood samples may be collected to assess arterial blood gas levels, which can help determine the impact of pneumothorax on oxygen and carbon dioxide levels in the blood.
  • Pleural fluid analysis: If there is suspicion of other conditions, such as infection or bleeding within the pleural space, a sample of pleural fluid may be collected for analysis.

The combination of these diagnostic methods helps doctors confirm the presence of pneumothorax, determine its extent and severity, and identify any associated complications. 

How is Pneumothorax Treated?

The treatment of pneumothorax depends on its severity, underlying cause, and the presence of complications. Here are common approaches to managing pneumothorax:

  • Observation: Small, uncomplicated pneumothoraces may be managed by observing the individual to see if the air in the pleural space resolves on its own. This approach is often considered for primary spontaneous pneumothorax in stable patients without significant respiratory distress.
  • Oxygen therapy: Providing supplemental oxygen can help reabsorb the trapped air more quickly, facilitating lung re-expansion. This approach is often used in conjunction with other treatments.
  • Aspiration or needle decompression: For larger or more symptomatic pneumothoraces, the doctor may use a needle to aspirate the air from the pleural space, relieving pressure and allowing the lung to re-expand. This procedure is often done at the bedside or in the emergency department.
  • Chest tube insertion: A more definitive treatment for pneumothorax involves the insertion of a chest tube. This tube is placed into the pleural space to continuously remove air and allow the lung to re-expand fully. Chest tube insertion is often performed in the hospital setting.
  • Thoracentesis: This is a procedure where a needle or catheter is used to remove excess fluid or air from the pleural space. While it is more commonly associated with treating pleural effusions (accumulation of fluid), it can also be used in certain cases of pneumothorax to remove air and facilitate lung reexpansion.
  • Pleurodesis: In recurrent or persistent cases, where pneumothorax tends to recur, a procedure called pleurodesis may be considered. This involves introducing substances (such as talc) into the pleural space to induce scarring, preventing future air leaks.
  • Surgery: Surgical intervention may be recommended in certain situations, especially if there is a recurrent pneumothorax, underlying lung disease, or if other treatments are unsuccessful. Surgery may involve repairing air leaks and addressing any underlying lung abnormalities.

Note: The choice of treatment depends on factors such as the size of the pneumothorax, the presence of symptoms, and the underlying cause. For tension pneumothorax, immediate needle decompression or chest tube insertion is essential. Thoracentesis may be considered as an option in specific cases where removing air from the pleural space is indicated.

Can Pneumothorax be Prevented?

While it may not be possible to prevent all cases of pneumothorax, certain measures can reduce the risk, especially in individuals with known risk factors. Here are some preventive strategies:

  • Smoking cessation: Quitting smoking is crucial, as tobacco smoke can damage lung tissue, making it more susceptible to air leaks. Individuals who smoke should seek support to quit and maintain a smoke-free lifestyle.
  • Safety measures: Taking precautions to prevent chest injuries is essential. This includes wearing seat belts in vehicles, using appropriate protective gear during certain activities, and practising safety measures to minimise the risk of trauma.
  • Managing underlying lung conditions: Individuals with chronic lung conditions, such as asthma, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), or cystic fibrosis, should work closely with their doctors to manage their conditions effectively. This may involve medication management, lifestyle adjustments, and regular check-ups.
  • Avoiding illicit drug use: Illicit drug use, especially drugs that are inhaled, can increase the risk of pneumothorax. Avoiding such substances can contribute to preventing the condition.
  • Prompt treatment of respiratory infections: Prompt and effective treatment of respiratory infections, such as pneumonia or tuberculosis, can help prevent complications that may lead to pneumothorax.
  • Genetic counselling: In cases where there is a known genetic predisposition to spontaneous pneumothorax, individuals may consider genetic counselling to understand the risks and explore preventive measures.

It's important to note that while these measures can reduce the risk of pneumothorax in certain situations, some cases, such as spontaneous pneumothorax, may not be preventable. Individuals with specific concerns or risk factors should consult a doctor to discuss personalised preventive strategies and appropriate monitoring.

Wrap up

While following certain preventive measures can mitigate the risk of pneumothorax to an extent, it's crucial to recognize that this condition can still occur, and prompt medical attention is paramount for accurate diagnosis and effective treatment. If you or someone you know experiences symptoms such as sudden chest pain, difficulty breathing, or other signs indicative of pneumothorax, seeking immediate medical care is essential. Max Hospitals, with its team of specialised healthcare professionals, stands ready to provide comprehensive evaluation, diagnosis, and tailored treatment plans. Consulting a specialist at Max Hospitals will provide you with the expertise and care needed for a swift and thorough recovery. Prioritise your well-being by reaching out to the dedicated healthcare professionals at Max Hospitals.


Written and Verified by:

Medical Expert Team