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Chest drains in traumatic occult pneumothorax

Three Part Question

In [a patient who has sustained blunt trauma who is found to have an occult pneumothorax on CT scan] is [tube thoracostomy better than observation] at reducing [morbidity and mortality]?

Clinical Scenario

A 30 year old man is brought into the Emergency Department after a road traffic accident. A chest X-ray taken as part of the ATLS trauma series is normal and he has no clinical signs of chest injury. He goes on to have an abdominal CT for investigation of blunt abdominal trauma. This reveals an occult pneumothorax. You wonder whether you should insert a chest drain.

Search Strategy

Medline 1966 to October Week 4 2005 using the OVID interface.
Embase 1980 to 2005 week 47
The Cochrane Library Issue 4 2005
Medline:[exp pneumothorax/ or] AND ([exp "wounds and injuries"/OR] OR chest OR exp chest tubes/ OR exp thoracostomy]) AND ([exp Tomography, X-ray computed OR] OR LIMIT to human AND English
Embase:exp pneumothorax/or] AND [exp injury/or exp wound/ or or exp thorax drainage/or chest or] AND [exp computer assisted tomography/ or or exp occult blood/] Limit to human and English, Age groups - All adult 18–64 years and 64 years >
Cochrane:Chest drains [MeSH] AND pneumothorax [MeSH] 23 hits

Search Outcome

Altogether 279 papers were found of which 273 were irrelevant or of insufficient quality for inclusion

Relevant Paper(s)

Author, date and country Patient group Study type (level of evidence) Outcomes Key results Study Weaknesses
Garramone et al
26 trauma patients aged 14-65 with occult pneumothorax (OPTX) on abdominal CT. Classified as <5x80mm or >=5x80mmRetrospective chart reviewComplications of PTX, respiratory or haemodynamic compromiseNo patient had haemodynamic or respiraory complications. Of 18 with small OPTX who were observed 2 had chest drains for increasing subcutaneous emphysema, 1 for increasing PTX. 10 were ventilated. Of 13 pateints with larger OPTX 10 were ventilated. 4 had prophylactic chest drains, 3 for increasing subcutaneous emphysema 2 for increasing effusionRetrospective Small numbers
Collins et al
26 patients aged 18-82 with occult pneumothorax Immediate chest tube (n=12) vs observation (n=11)Retrospective chart reviewLength of hospital stay (mean)13.4 days vs 8.8 daysSmall study Retrospective
Length if ICU stay6.3 days vs 3.3 days
Complicationsimmediate chest tube group : 1 pt had laceration of intercostal artery, 1 self removed and needed replacement for recurrent pneumothorax. 2 observed pts had eventual chest tubes for enlarging pneumothorax or haemothorax
Enderson et al
40 adult trauma patients Randomized to immediate chest tube (n=19) or observation (n=21)PRCTLength of hospital stay12.9 vs 17.6 daysSmall study
Length of ICU stay2.8 vs 3.2 days
Complicationsimmediate chest tube: 1 pneumonia, 8 atelectasis. Observation group 3 tension pneumothorax, 5 progression pneumothorax, 1 pneumonia, 1 empyema, 3 atelectasis
Wolfman et al
44 pts aged 17 months -70 yrs with occult pneumothorax, classified according to siza into miniscule, anterior or anterolateral. Chest tube inserted dependent on size and at trauma surgeons discretionProspective non-randomizedComplications15/16 with miniscule observed, 2 had delayed chest drain for pneumothorax progression. 12/20 anterior observed 1 developed tension pneumothorax. 8 with anterolateral had immediate chest drain, no complicationsSmall numbers Both adults and children
Brasel et al
39 adult patients with occult pneumothorax randomised to chest tube (n=18) or observation (n=21)PRCTRespiratory distress1 pt with chest tube was intubated for stridor. 3 observed pts had resp distress with pneumothorax progressiononly 39 of 86 eligible pts recruited
Holmes et al
11 children <16yrs with occult pneumothorax presenting to level 1 trauma centre. 1 had chest tube, 10 observedProspective observational cohort studyComplicationsno haemodynamic or respiratory complicationssmall numbers paediatric population


All the papers report small numbers. There are conflicting results. Some classify occult pneumothoraces into size but different techniques are used

Clinical Bottom Line

It appears reasonable to treat small occult pneumothoraces with observation, there is no evidence whether it is safe to extend this to larger occult pneumothoraces.


  1. Garramone RR Jr. Jacobs LM. Sahdev P. An objective method to measure and manage occult pneumothorax. Surgery, Gynecology & Obstetrics 1991:173(4);p257-261.
  2. Collins JC, Levine G, Waxman K. Occult traumatic pneumothorax : immediate tube thoracostomy vs expectant management. American Surgeon 1992:58(12);743-6.
  3. Enderson BL. Abdalla R. Frame SB. Casey MT. Gould H. Maull KI. Tube Thoracostomy for occult pneumothorax: a prospective randomized study of its use. The journal of Trauma-Injury Infection & Critical Care 1993:35(5);726-30.
  4. Wolfman NT. Myers WS. Glauser SJ. Meredith JW. Chen MY. Validity of CT classification on management of occult pneumothorax. American Journal Roentgenology 1998:171(5);1317-20.
  5. Brasel KJ. Stafford RE. Weigelt JA. Tenquist JE. Borgstrom DC. Treatment of Occult Pneumothoraces from blunt trauma. The Journal of Trauma, Injury, Infection and Critical Care 1999:46(6);987-990.
  6. Holmes JF. Brant WE. Bogren HG. London KL. Kuppermann N. Prevalence and Importance of Pneumothoraces Visualised on Abdominal CT scan in children with blunt trauma. Journal of Trauma, injury, infection and critical care 2000:50(3);516-520.