A collapsed lung occurs when air leaks into the space between your lung and chest wall. This air pushes on the outside of your lung and makes it collapse.
A pneumothorax (noo-moe-THOR-aks) is a collapsed lung. A pneumothorax occurs when air leaks into the space between your lung and chest wall. This air pushes on the outside of your lung and makes it collapse. A pneumothorax can be a complete lung collapse or a collapse of only a portion of the lung.
A pneumothorax can be caused by a blunt or penetrating chest injury, certain medical procedures, or damage from underlying lung disease. Or it may occur for no obvious reason. Symptoms usually include sudden chest pain and shortness of breath. On some occasions, a collapsed lung can be a life-threatening event.
Treatment for a pneumothorax usually involves inserting a needle or chest tube between the ribs to remove the excess air. However, a small pneumothorax may heal on its own.
In a collapsed lung, air from the lung leaks into the chest cavity. The example shown is a complete left pneumothorax.
The main symptoms of a pneumothorax are sudden chest pain and shortness of breath. Severity of symptoms may depend on how much of the lung is collapsed.
Symptoms of a pneumothorax can be caused by a variety of health problems, and some can be life-threatening, so seek medical attention. If your chest pain is severe or breathing becomes increasingly difficult, get immediate emergency care.
A pneumothorax can be caused by:
In general, men are far more likely to have a pneumothorax than women are. The type of pneumothorax caused by ruptured air blisters is most likely to occur in people between 20 and 40 years old, especially if the person is very tall and underweight.
Underlying lung disease or mechanical ventilation can be a cause or a risk factor for a pneumothorax. Other risk factors include:
Potential complications vary, depending on the size and severity of the pneumothorax as well as the cause and treatment. Sometimes air may continue to leak if the opening in the lung won't close or pneumothorax may recur.
A pneumothorax is generally diagnosed using a chest X-ray. In some cases, a computerized tomography (CT) scan may be needed to provide more-detailed images. Ultrasound imaging also may be used to identify a pneumothorax.
The goal in treating a pneumothorax is to relieve the pressure on your lung, allowing it to re-expand. Depending on the cause of the pneumothorax, a second goal may be to prevent recurrences. The methods for achieving these goals depend on the severity of the lung collapse and sometimes on your overall health.
Treatment options may include observation, needle aspiration, chest tube insertion, nonsurgical repair or surgery. You may receive supplemental oxygen therapy to speed air reabsorption and lung expansion.
If only a small portion of your lung is collapsed, your doctor may simply monitor your condition with a series of chest X-rays until the excess air is completely absorbed and your lung has re-expanded. This may take several weeks.
If a larger area of your lung has collapsed, it's likely that a needle or chest tube will be used to remove the excess air.
If a chest tube doesn't re-expand your lung, nonsurgical options to close the air leak may include:
Sometimes surgery may be necessary to close the air leak. In most cases, the surgery can be performed through small incisions, using a tiny fiber-optic camera and narrow, long-handled surgical tools. The surgeon will look for the leaking area or ruptured air blister and close it off.
Rarely, the surgeon will have to make a larger incision between the ribs to get better access to multiple or larger air leaks.
You may need to avoid certain activities that put extra pressure on your lungs for a time after your pneumothorax heals. Examples include flying, scuba diving or playing a wind instrument. Talk to your doctor about the type and length of your activity restrictions. Keep follow-up appointments with your doctor to monitor your healing.