Tag Archives: pneumothorax

Management of Occult Pneumothorax

Occult pneumothorax is a pleural air collection that is seen only on CT. It is not detected by standard chest xray either because of small size, location of the air, or position of the patient during xray (usually supine).

Approximately 15% of major trauma patients undergoing CT are diagnosed with an occult pneumothorax. The tough question is, what to do about it. Larger pneumothoraces are frequently treated with thoracostomy, but this procedure has its own list of associated complications. Patients undergoing positive pressure ventilation with a visible pneumothorax have an increased risk for progression to tension pneumothorax.

At our trauma center, we manage occult pneumothorax expectantly. If a pneumothorax is seen on the chest portion of a CT scan but not on the initial supine chest xray, a repeat conventional chest xray is scheduled for 6 hours later. Ideally, this xray is taken using the best technique (upright, PA, xray source 6ft from patient). However, this is not always practical for severely injured patients.

If the pneumothorax remains occult on the followup xray, no further monitoring is performed. If the pneumothorax becomes visible, repeat chest xrays are obtained every 6 hours until it is stable or it becomes large enough to warrant insertion of a chest tube.

How large is large enough for a chest tube? That’s the subject for another day.

Is It Safe to Watch Occult Pneumothorax in Ventilated Patients?

An occult pneumothorax is one that is visible on chest CT but not conventional chest xray. The pneumo can be a single bubble, or it can be a larger one that layers out over the lung but cannot be seen on plain xray. This air is generally watched for a period of time, typically 6 hours, then a repeat plain radiograph is obtained to see if it has become visible. 

The pneumothorax literature cautions us about watching visible pneumothoraces in patients who are placed on positive pressure ventilation. The rationale is that this may force more air out of an acutely injured lung, resulting in an enlarging pneumothorax. Many have recommended that a chest tube be placed in any patient with a visible pneumothorax on positive pressure ventilation to avoid the possibility of developing a tension pneumothorax.

But what about the occult pneumothorax? Since they are generally very small, do they pose the same risk? A paper from 2008 retrospectively reviewed 79 patients with occult pneumothorax , 20 of whom were placed on ventilators. 51 of 59 of the non-ventilated patients had no change in their occult pneumo (86%), while 16 of 20 of the ventilated patients had no progression (80%).

The study numbers are small, but suggest that occult pneumothoraces can be safely watched. The real question is, how long do you have to watch it? Typically, ventilated patients get regular chest xrays, so monitoring for progression of the pneumo should be easy.

Reference: American Surgeon 74(10):958, 2008.

High Inspired O2 Is Not An Effective Pneumothorax Treatment

The use of high concentrations of inspired oxygen seems to be a time-honored technique for trying to avoid chest tube insertion for pneumothorax. But does it stand up to scrutiny, or is this just an urban legend?

This recommendation is based upon a single case report involving 8 patients in 1983! Six patients with a pneumothorax of less than 30% showed a decrease in size of 4.2% per day on average. The two patients with pneumothoraces larger than 30% did not respond. A response was only seen with oxygen administered by a partial nonrebreather mask, not by nasal cannula.

What’s the problem? First, this is a very small case report. There were no controls, so it is entirely possible that the resolution rate without treatment was the same as that seen in this report. Furthermore, this study was performed prior to the availability of chest CT. Therefore, the true size of the pneumothoraces is only a guess since volumetric calculations could not be performed. It is not possible to distinguish a 4% change in the size of a pneumothorax by regular chest xray (click here for more details).

The bottom line: If the patient needs supplemental oxygen for management of other pulmonary conditions, then administer it. It is not indicated as an independent treatment for pneumothorax, and its use for this condition should be abandoned!

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Reference: Noninvasive treatment of pneumothorax with oxygen inhalation. Chadha TS. Respiration 44(2):147-52, 1983

Factors Predicting Failure of Observation of Occult Pneumothorax

An occult pneumothorax is defined as one that is seen on CT scan, but not on plain chest x-ray. It is a common finding in blunt trauma that is evaluated using CT 2-12% of scans), but there is no consensus on management. It is recognized that some of these progress and require insertion of a chest tube, while many can be observed safely. The authors try to define what factors predict the need for chest tube management.

The authors reviewed their experience over a 3 year period, and identified 642 patients (10% of their registry entries) with a pneumothorax. 283 were occult, and 98 ultimately received a chest tube.

They found that age>35, ISS>24, more than 4 rib fractures, and need for positive pressure ventilation increased the risk for chest tube insertion. These seem to make sense, but there was one significant limitation in this study: there were no standard indications for a chest tube insertion among the surgeons involved with these patients. There was significant variability, so the actual need for tube insertion was probably less than reported.

An audience member related one anecdotal factor for chest tube as well: a heavy smoking history. This makes intuitive sense, but not everything that makes sense is borne out by research.

At Regions, we define an occult pneumothorax the same way these authors did. We routinely get a delayed chest xray 6 hours later. If there is still no visible pneumothorax, we stop looking. If it is visible, we will obtain periodic (q12-24 hrs) xrays until it stabilizes or grows to a size that demands tube or pigtail insertion.

Given the data conveyed in this paper, we will consider watching a bit longer than 6 hours in patients at higher risk.

Reference: Factors Predicting Failed Observation of Occult Pneumothorax in Blunt Trauma. Selander, Minshall, couillard, Leon. Medical University of South Carolina.

Presented at the 23rd Annual Scientific Assembly of the Eastern Association for the Surgery of Trauma