What is the prevalence of tension pneumothorax?

Updated: Apr 28, 2020
  • Author: Brian J Daley, MD, MBA, FACS, FCCP, CNSC; Chief Editor: Mary C Mancini, MD, PhD, MMM  more...
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Tension pneumothorax is a complication in approximately 1-2% of the cases of idiopathic spontaneous pneumothorax. Until the late 1800s, tuberculosis was a primary cause of pneumothorax development. A 1962 study showed a frequency of pneumothorax of 1.4% in patients with tuberculosis.

The actual incidence of tension pneumothorax outside of a hospital setting is impossible to determine. Approximately 10-30% of patients transported to level-1 trauma centers in the United States receive prehospital decompressive needle thoracostomies; however, not all of these patients actually have a true tension pneumothorax. Although this occurrence rate may seem high, disregarding the diagnosis would probably result in unnecessary deaths. A review of military deaths from thoracic trauma suggests that up to 5% of combat casualties with thoracic trauma have tension pneumothorax at the time of death. [27]

The overall incidence of tension pneumothorax in the intensive care unit (ICU) is unknown. The medical literature provides only glimpses of the frequency. In one report, of 2000 incidents reported to the Australian Incident Monitoring Study (AIMS), 17 involved actual or suspected pneumothoraces, and 4 of those were diagnosed as tension pneumothorax.

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