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A 34-year-old man comes to the emergency department via ambulance because of a motor vehicle collision in which he was not wearing a seatbelt. On the way to the hospital he developed shortness of breath and tachycardia. He is in obvious discomfort, and his pulse is 120/min, respirations are 32/min, and a blood pressure is 80/50 mm Hg. He opens his eyes spontaneously, he can move all four extremities, and obeys commands. His neck veins are distended. Breathing sounds are absent on the right side. In which of the following structures is pressure most likely increased?
Contributors:Sam Gillespie, BSc
With pneumothorax, pneumo refers to air and thorax means chest, so a pneumothorax is when there is air in the chest; more specifically air in the space between the lungs and chest wall – called the pleural space.
The pleural space normally contains a lubricating fluid that helps reduce friction as the lungs expand and contract.
Pressure within the pleural space is established by two main opposing forces.
One is the muscle tension of the diaphragm and chest wall which contract and expand the thoracic cavity outwards, and the other is the elastic recoil of the lungs, which try to pull the lungs inward.
The two pull on each other creating a balance between the forces that creates a slight vacuum in the pleural space.
It results in the pleural space having a pressure of -5 centimeters of water relative to the pressure of 0 centimeters of water in both the thoracic cavity and the lungs.
A pneumothorax forms when the seal of the pleural space is punctured and air moves in from the outside, making the pressure in the pleural space equalize to 0 centimeters of water.
Since the negative pleural pressure is lost, the two opposing forces no longer pull on one another.
As a result, the lungs simply pull inwards and collapse, and the chest wall simply springs outward a bit.
A collapsed lung limits how well it can exchange air, and can lead to a reduction in oxygen being brought into the body, and a build-up of carbon dioxide in the body because it can’t easily get released.
There are many types of pneumothorax.
The first is a spontaneous pneumothorax which typically occurs when a bullae, which is an air pocket, forms on the surface of the lungs and breaks.
Typically the alveoli heals up, otherwise it would itself lead to a pneumothorax.
But the result is a bullae.
If the bullae breaks, it creates a large hole in the visceral pleura and air can go from the airway directly into the pleural space.
A primary spontaneous pneumothorax is one that develops in the absence of an underlying condition - most typically it’s in a thin, tall, adolescent male who is hold his breath, creating a lot of internal pressure.