What is pulmonary emphysema?

Updated: Mar 13, 2019
  • Author: Ali Nawaz Khan, MBBS, FRCS, FRCP, FRCR; Chief Editor: Eugene C Lin, MD  more...
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Ballile and Laennec described the anatomopathology of emphysema in 1793 and in 1826, respectively. After that, Lynne Reid published one of the landmark works in our understanding of emphysema, The Pathology of Emphysema, [13] which provided a detailed description of the anatomy of the lung units and of the anatomopathology and pathophysiology of emphysema, broadening the view of this complex disease. [13, 14]

Pulmonary emphysema is defined as the permanent enlargement of airspaces distal to the terminal bronchioles and the destruction of the alveolar walls. Pathology reveals a marked increase in the size of the airspaces, resulting in labored breathing and an increased susceptibility to infection. It can be caused by irreversible expansion of the alveoli or by the destruction of alveolar walls. Fibrosis is not associated with this condition.

Pulmonary emphysema and chronic bronchitis are important components of chronic obstructive pulmonary disease. Emphysema often coexists with chronic bronchitis in the COPD population, and from a clinical point of view, they are generally considered as one entity. Although a tissue diagnosis of emphysema is possible, in advanced cases it can usually be confidently diagnosed on the basis of the patient's history, physical findings, pulmonary function, and imaging results.

For further information, see Imaging in Congenital Lobar EmphysemaImaging in Emphysematous Pyelonephritis, and Imaging in Pulmonary Interstitial Emphysema.

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