Tag Archives: tension pneumothorax

Flying Or Diving After Traumatic Pneumothorax: Part 2

In my last post, I wrote about the accepted management of and delay in flying due to traumatic pneumothorax. I republished the post because of the publication of a paper from Oregon Health Science University in Portland. The authors specifically tried to assess timing of chest tube removal and long-distance flight, and to measure the risk of pneumothorax recurrence or other complications.

The authors performed a retrospective review of a series of military patients who had sustained chest injuries that were treated with chest tubes over a 5 year period from 2008 to 2012. After tube removal and a pneumothorax-free period of at least 24 hours (by chest x-ray), the patients were then transported by air from the military theater back to the United States.

Here are the factoids:

  • Of 517 patients screened in the military trauma registry database, only 73 were available for study after applying exclusion criteria
  • Subjects were predominantly young and male, as one would expect from the injured military population, and 74% were injured by a penetrating mechanism
  • Median time that the chest tube was in place was 4 days, and median time from tube removal to flight was 2.5 days
  • All patients had post-flight documentation available for review, but only half (37) had in-flight documentation available
  • Nearly half (40%) had positive pressure ventilation in place during the flight
  • Five patients had “in-flight medical concerns” (4 were ventilated), but none were related to the pneumothorax. The four ventilated patients had ventilator issues, the non-vented patient had “self-limited discomfort without evidence of respiratory distress.”
  • None of the subjects developed a recurrent pneumothorax, either post-flight or over the following 30 days

The authors conclude that air travel after tube removal and a 24-72 hour observation period “appears safe.”

Bottom line: Not so fast! This is yet another small, retrospective study making grand claims. The study group is a very unique population: healthy, fit young men with penetrating injury. Your average civilian trauma patient is older, less healthy, and usually has a blunt mechanism with multiple rib fractures. In-flight documentation was not available in half of the cases. And a full medical team was present on the aircraft had a problem actually occurred.

Contrast this with a civilian patient on a commercial aircraft with very limited medical equipment and expertise on board. What could go wrong? I definitely do not recommend changing our practice on these patients yet based on this one paper. Until we have better guidance (more good papers) stick to the usual wait time to ensure a safe flight for your patient.

Reference: Trauma patients are safe to fly 72 hours after tube thoracostomy removal. J Trauma, published ahead of print, May 18 2018.

Flying Or Diving After Traumatic Pneumothorax: Part 1

Today, I’m dusting off an old post on flying and diving after pneumothorax. This shows the thinking up until a few years ago. In my next post, I’ll write about a more recent paper that suggests that we can shorten the “no-fly” time considerably.

Hint: no changes to the diving recommendations. One pneumothorax is likely to ground you forever. (pardon the pun)

Patients who have sustained a traumatic pneumothorax occasionally ask how soon they can fly in an airplane or scuba dive after they are discharged. What’s the right answer?

The basic problem concerns Boyle’s Law (remember that from high school?). The volume of a gas varies inversely with the barometric pressure. So the lower the pressure, the larger the volume of gas becomes. Most of us hang out close to sea level, so this is not an issue. But for flyers or divers, it may be.


Helicopters typically fly only one to two thousand feet above the ground, so the air pressure is about the same as standing on the earth. However, flying in a commercial airliner is different. Even though the aircraft may cruise at 30,000+ feet, the inside of the cabin remains considerably lower though not at sea level. Typically, the cabin altitude goes up to about 8,000 to 9,000 feet. Using Boyle’s law, any volume of gas (say, a pneumothorax in your chest) will increase by about a third on a commercial flight.

The physiologic effect of this increase depends upon the patient. They may never know anything is happening if they are young and fit. But if they are elderly and/or have a limited pulmonary reserve, it may compromise enough lung function to make them symptomatic. And having a medical problem in an aluminum tube at 30,000 feet is never good.

Commercial guidelines for travel after pneumothorax range from 2-6 weeks. The Aerospace Medical Association published guidelines that state that 2-3 weeks is acceptable. The Orlando Regional Medical Center reviewed the literature and devised a practice guideline with a single Level 2 recommendation that commercial air travel is safe 2 weeks after resolution of the pneumothorax, an that a chest x-ray should be obtained immediately before travel to confirm resolution.


Diving would seem to be pretty safe, right? Any pneumothorax would just shrink while the diver was at depth, then re-expand to the original size when he or she surfaces, right?

Not so fast. You are forgetting why the pneumothorax was there in the first place. The lung was injured, most likely via tearing it, penetration by something sharp, or popping a bleb. If the injured area has not completely healed, then air may begin to escape through it again. And since the air used in scuba diving is delivered under pressure, this could result in a tension pneumothorax.  This is disastrous underwater!

Most injuries leading to pneumothorax heal completely. However, if there are bone spicules stuck in the lung or more complicated parenchymal injuries from penetrating injury, they may never completely heal. This makes the diver susceptible to a tension pneumothorax anytime they use their regulator.

Bottom line: Most patients can safely travel on commercial aircraft 2 weeks after resolution of pneumothorax. Ideally, a chest xray should be obtained shortly before travel to confirm that it is gone. Helicopter travel is okay at any time, since they typically fly at 1,500 feet or less.

Divers should see a physician trained in dive medicine to evaluate their injury and imaging prior to making another dive.

Tomorrow: new info on flying after pneumothorax


  • Divers Alert Network – Pneumothorax – click to download
  • Practice Guideline, Orlando Regional Medical Center. Air travel following traumatic pneumothorax. October 2009.
  • Medical Guidelines for Airline Travel, 2nd edition. Aerospace Medical Association. Aviation, Space, and Environmental Medicine 74(5) Section II Supplement, May 2003.

How To: Needle Decompression Of The Chest

Here’s a quick, 3 ½ minute video for physicians and paramedics on how to decompress the chest when you suspect a tension pneumothorax.

The ATLS course now adds a consideration to use an alternative site. That location is the 5th intercostal space around the mid-axillary line. This has come about because shorter needles may not reach the pleural space when inserted under the clavicle in larger patients. The new spot is the typical location for placement of the inevitable chest tube that has to be inserted after needle decompression.

If you’ve got a few tips or tricks that you’d like to share on this procedure, please comment on the YouTube video.

Tension Pneumothorax From Inside The Chest: The Video

This video shows what it looks like from the inside when a needle thoracostomy is inserted into the chest. Note that it takes about a minute for the lung to expand, so be patient when you insert the needle. You can also get an idea of why the needle is only a temporary measure as the inflating lung begins to kink the catheter.

Don’t ask why there was a thoracoscope in the chest with a tension pneumo in the first place, though!