A pneumothorax is generally diagnosed using a chest X-ray. In some cases, a computerized tomography (CT) scan may be needed to provide more-detailed images. Ultrasound imaging also may be used to identify a pneumothorax.
The goal in treating a pneumothorax is to relieve the pressure on your lung, allowing it to re-expand. Depending on the cause of the pneumothorax, a second goal may be to prevent recurrences. The methods for achieving these goals depend on the severity of the lung collapse and sometimes on your overall health. Treatment options may include observation, needle aspiration, chest tube insertion, nonsurgical repair or surgery.
If only a small portion of your lung is collapsed, your doctor may simply monitor your condition with a series of chest X-rays until the excess air is completely absorbed and your lung has re-expanded. This may take several weeks.
Needle aspiration or chest tube insertion
If a larger area of your lung has collapsed, it's likely that a needle or chest tube will be used to remove the excess air.
- Needle aspiration. A hollow needle with small flexible tube (catheter) is inserted between the ribs into the air-filled space that is pressing on the collapsed lung. The needle is removed and a syringe is attached to the catheter so that the doctor can pull out the excess air. The catheter may be left in for a few hours to ensure the lung is re-expanded and the pneumothorax does not recur.
- Chest tube insertion. A flexible chest tube is inserted into the air-filled space and may be attached to a one-way valve device that continuously removes air from the chest cavity until your lung is re-expanded and healed.
If a chest tube doesn't re-expand your lung, nonsurgical options to close the air leak may include:
- Using a substance to irritate the tissues around the lung so that they'll stick together and seal any leaks. This can be done through the chest tube, but may be done during surgery.
- Drawing blood from your arm and placing it into the chest tube. The blood creates a fibrinous patch on the lung (autologous blood patch), sealing the air leak.
- Passing a thin tube (bronchoscope) down your throat and into your lungs to look at your lungs and air passages and place a one-way valve. The valve allows the lung to re-expand and the air leak to heal.
Sometimes surgery may be necessary to close the air leak. In most cases, the surgery can be performed through small incisions, using a tiny fiber-optic camera and narrow, long-handled surgical tools. The surgeon will look for the leaking area or ruptured bleb and close it off.
Rarely, the surgeon will have to make a larger incision between the ribs to get better access to multiple or larger air leaks.