Traumatic pneumothorax



  1. Open
    • Communication between pleural space and atmospheric pressure (sucking chest wound)
  2. Closed
  3. Occult

Clinical Features

  • Rib fracture and penetrating trauma most common causes
  • Isolated pneumothorax does not cause severe symptoms until >40% of hemithorax is occupied

Differential Diagnosis

Pneumothorax Types

The pleural cavity is normally a potential space, in which air collects in a pneumothorax.

Thoracic Trauma


  • Occult pneumothorax after a stab wound may be delayed for up to 6 hours
    • If patient decompensates, obtain repeat imaging

Clinically Stable

Defined as having all of the following:

  • Resp rate < 24
  • Heart rate 60-120 beats per minute
  • Normal BP
  • SaO2 >90% on room air and patient can speak in whole sentences


  • CXR
    • Displaced visceral pleural line without lung markings between pleural line and chest wall
    • Upright is best
      • Expiratory films DO NOT improve accuracy[1]
      • Lateral decubitus films with suspected side up do increase sensitivity. Good approach in pediatrics to avoid CT
    • Supine CXR = deep sulcus sign
  • CT Chest
    • Very sensitive and specific

Lung ultrasound of pneumothorax

  • No lung sliding seen (not specific for pneumothorax)
  • May also identify "lung point": distinct point where you no longer see lung sliding (pathognomonic)
  • Absence of lung sliding WITHOUT lung point could represent apnea or right mainstem intubation
  • Evaluate other intercostal spaces because pneumothorax may only be seen in least dependent area of thorax
    • NO comet tail artifact
    • Bar Code appearance/"Stratosphere" sign on M-mode (absence of "seashore" waves)
  • Ultrasound has greater sensitivity than chest x-ray for pneumothorax in trauma patients [2]

Estimating Pneumothorax Size

Measuring pneumothoraxes. Line A = lung apex to cupola. Line B = interpleural distance.
  • On a conventional, upright posterior-anterior chest radiograph:
    • Very small: <1 cm interpleural distance (confined to upper 1/3 of chest) OR only seen on CT
    • Small: ≤3cm lung apex to cupola (chest wall apex) on CXR
    • Large: >3cm lung apex to cupola (chest wall apex) on CXR
3cm apex to cupola measurement is roughly equivalent to 2cm interpleural distance (at the level of the hilum)
Both roughly correlate with a 50% pneumothorax by volume


Supplemental oxygen with non-rebreather for all

Tension pneumothorax

Open pneumothorax

  • Cover wound with three-sided dressing
    • Make sure to avoid complete occlusion (may convert injury to a tension pneumothorax)

Closed traumatic pneumothorax

  • Tube thoracostomy indicated if:
    • Cannot be observed closely
    • Requires intubation
    • Will be transported by air or over a long distance
  • Observation if:
    • Very small AND does not require mechanical ventilation
    • Unchanged on repeat CXR in 6 hours
  • Decision to intubate
    • Intubation can lead to positive pressure which may worsen a stable traumatic pneumothorax
    • If patient stable, preferable to just perform thoracostomy
    • If GCS < 8 or patient having difficulty, they should be intubated

Adult Chest Tube Sizes

Chest Tube Size Type of Patient Underlying Causes
Small (8-14 Fr)
  • Alveolar-pleural fistulae (small air leak)
  • Iatrogenic air
Medium (20-28 Fr)
  • Trauma/bleeding (hemothorax/hemopneumothorax)
  • Bronchial-pleural fistulae (large air leak)
  • Malignant fluid
Large (36-40 Fr)
  • Thick pus



Special Instructions


  • Can consider flying 2 weeks after full resolution of traumatic pneumothroax[5]


See Also


  1. Eur Respir J. 1996 Mar;9(3):406-9
  2. Nagarsheth K, Kurek S. Ultrasound detection of pneumothorax compared with chest X-ray and computed tomography scan. Am Surg. 2011 Apr;77(4):480-4. PMID: 21679560.
  3. Inaba Et. al J Trauma Acute Care Surg. 2012 Feb;72(2):422-7.
  4. Advanced Trauma Life Support® Update 2019: Management and Applications for Adults and Special Populations.
  5. "Management of spontaneous pneumothorax: British Thoracic Society pleural disease guideline 2010" British Thoracic Society Guidelines. Thorax 2010;65:ii18-ii31 doi:10.1136/thx.2010.136986 PDF