Pneumothorax is more commonly known as a collapsed lung. It occurs when air from the lung leaks into the area between the lung and the wall of the chest cavity (rib cage). This air puts pressure on the outside of the lung, so it cannot expand normally, leading to difficulty breathing. This situation can be life threatening and requires immediate treatment.
The Lung Center at Brigham and Women’s Hospital (BWH) provides specialized diagnostic services and offers proven treatments for pneumothorax. Our board-certified surgeons are experts in the latest minimally invasive thoracoscopic surgical techniques using video-assisted thoracic surgery (VATS), a safe and effective alternative to open surgery.
There are several known causes of pneumothorax:
- Chest injury (blunt or penetrating)
- Medical procedures involving insertion of needles into the chest
- Underlying lung diseases, such as:
- Smoking: the more you smoke, and the longer you have smoked both increase your risk
- Genetics: some types of pneumothorax run in families
- Being tall and thin
- History of previous pneumothorax
If you have these symptoms, you should seek immediate attention either at your doctor’s office or in an emergency room where you will likely have a thoracic surgery consultation.
There are clear warning signs of a collapsed lung:
- Sudden, sharp chest pain, which worsens with coughing or taking a deep breathe
- Shortness of breath
If the leak in the lung is a large one, more severe symptoms can occur:
- Skin turns a bluish color due to lack of oxygen
- Tightness in the chest
- Rapid heart rate
- Nasal flaring
After taking your medical history and performing a careful physical examination, your Lung Center team may order the following tests to confirm a pneumothorax:
- Chest CT scan uses a combination of X-rays and computer technology to produce horizontal, or axial, images of any part of the body, including the bones, muscles, fat and organs.
- Chest X-ray uses invisible electromagnetic energy beams to produce images of internal tissues, bones and organs on film or digital media.
Depending on the severity of your pneumothorax, there are several treatment options:
- Observation: If your lung collapse is small, your condition will be monitored with a series of chest X-rays, usually in the hospital. You may need to use supplemental oxygen. Sometimes the air can be reabsorbed and your lung returns to normal after a week or two.
- Needle or chest tube insertion: If your lung collapse is larger, or air continues to leak, a needle or chest tube is inserted to remove the air.
- Minimally invasive surgical treatment: If the needle or chest tube does remove the air successfully, video-assisted thoracic surgery (VATS) may be required to close the leak particularly when this is a recurrent problem. A small telescope is inserted and the source of the air leak is stapled closed. After surgery, you can expect to stay in the hospital for a few days recovering.
When you become a patient of The Lung Center, you will meet many members of the team who specialize in pneumothorax. You will receive a thorough diagnostic evaluation and careful monitoring.
If you have had a pneumothorax in the past that was treated without surgery, it is recommended that you do not participate in sports that involve changes in barometric pressure (scuba diving, mountain climbing, sky diving). If you would like to participate in these sports, but have had a pneumothorax in the past, specialists at The Lung Center can assess your risk for participating in such sports.
Pneumothorax patients benefit from the wide range of specialists at the Lung Center, including pulmonologists, thoracic surgeons, cardiovascular medicine physicians and thoracic imaging experts. This collaboration ensures comprehensive evaluation and treatment. If your medical team discovers an underlying illness or concern, you will be referred to a BWH physician for an expert evaluation.
Any surgery recommended will be performed by an experienced, board-certified thoracic surgeon, in collaboration with a pulmonologist and anesthesiologist, as well as nurses and physicians, all of whom are experts in taking care of patients with pneumothorax.
Go to our online health library to learn more about thoracic diseases and tests.
Visit the Kessler Health Education Library in the Bretholtz Center for Patients and Families to access computers and knowledgeable staff.
This page was last modified on 6/22/2016