Open Access Open Badges Original research

The intrapleural volume threshold for ultrasound detection of pneumothoraces: An experimental study on porcine models

Nils Petter Oveland12*, Eldar Søreide23, Hans Morten Lossius13, Frode Johannessen4, Kristian Borup Wemmelund5, Rasmus Aagaard56 and Erik Sloth57

Author Affiliations

1 Department of Research and Development, Norwegian Air Ambulance Foundation, Mailbox 94, Droebak, 1441, Norway

2 Department of Anesthesiology and Intensive Care, Stavanger University Hospital, Stavanger, Norway

3 Department of Surgical Sciences, University of Bergen, Bergen, Norway

4 Department of Radiology, Stavanger University Hospital, Stavanger, Norway

5 Faculty of Health Sciences, Institute of Clinical Medicine, Aarhus University, Aarhus, Denmark

6 Department of Anesthesiology, Regional Hospital of Randers, Randers, Denmark

7 Department of Anesthesiology and Intensive Care, Aarhus University Hospital, Aarhus, Denmark

For all author emails, please log on.

Scandinavian Journal of Trauma, Resuscitation and Emergency Medicine 2013, 21:11  doi:10.1186/1757-7241-21-11

Published: 1 March 2013



Small pneumothoraxes (PTXs) may not impart an immediate threat to trauma patients after chest injuries. However, the amount of pleural air may increase and become a concern for patients who require positive pressure ventilation or air ambulance transport. Lung ultrasonography (US) is a reliable tool in finding intrapleural air, but the performance characteristics regarding the detection of small PTXs need to be defined. The study aimed to define the volume threshold of intrapleural air when PTXs are accurately diagnosed with US and compare this volume with that for chest x-ray (CXR).


Air was insufflated into a unilateral pleural catheter in seven incremental steps (10, 25, 50, 100, 200, 350 and 500 mL) in 20 intubated porcine models, followed by a diagnostic evaluation with US and a supine anteroposterior CXR. The sonographers continued the US scanning until the PTXs could be ruled in, based on the pathognomonic US “lung point” sign. The corresponding threshold volume was noted. A senior radiologist interpreted the CXR images.


The mean threshold volume to confirm the diagnosis of PTX using US was 18 mL (standard deviation of 13 mL). Sixty-five percent of the PTXs were already diagnosed at 10 mL of intrapleural air; 25%, at 25 mL; and the last 10%, at 50 mL. At an air volume of 50 mL, the radiologist only identified four out of 20 PTXs in the CXR pictures; i.e., a sensitivity of 20% (95% CI: 7%, 44%). The sensitivity of CXR increased as a function of volume but leveled off at 67%, leaving one-third (1/3) of the PTXs unidentified after 500 mL of insufflated air.


Lung US is very accurate in diagnosing even small amounts of intrapleural air and should be performed by clinicians treating chest trauma patients when PTX is among the differential diagnoses.

(MeSH terms): Pneumothorax; Ultrasonography; Chest x-ray; Computed tomography; Pleura and (models animal)