Pleurisy (Pleuritis) - Diagnosis

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How was the diagnosis of your pleurisy (pleuritis) established?

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How is pleurisy diagnosed?

The pain of pleurisy is very distinctive. The pain is in the chest and is usually sharp and aggravated by breathing. However, the pain can be confused with the pain of:

  • inflammation around the heart (pericarditis), or
  • heart attack (myocardial infarction)

To make the diagnosis of pleurisy, a doctor examines the chest in the area of pain and can often hear (with a stethoscope) the friction that is generated by the rubbing of the two inflamed layers of pleura with each breath. The noise generated by this sound is termed a pleural friction rub. (In contrast, the friction of the rubbing that is heard with pericarditis occurs synchronous with the heartbeat and does not vary with respiration.) With large amounts of pleural fluid accumulation, there can be decreased breath sounds (less audible respiratory sounds heard through a stethoscope) and the chest is dull sounding when the doctor drums on it (termed dullness upon percussion).

A chest X-ray taken in the upright position and while lying on the side is a tool in diagnosing of fluid in the pleural space. It is possible to estimate the amount of fluid collection by findings on the X-ray. Occasionally, as much as 4-5 liters of fluid can accumulate inside the pleural space.

Ultrasound is also a very sensitive method of detecting the presence of pleural fluid.

A CT scan can be very helpful in detecting trapped pockets of pleural fluid, as well as in determining the nature of the tissues surrounding the area.

Removal of pleural fluid with a needle and syringe (aspiration) is essential in diagnosing the cause of pleurisy. The fluid's color, consistency, and clarity are analyzed in the laboratory. The fluid analysis is defined as either an "exudate" (high in protein, low in sugar, high in LDH enzyme, and high white cell count; characteristic of an inflammatory process) or a "transudate" (containing normal levels of these body chemicals).

  • Causes of exudative fluid include infections (such as pneumonia), cancer, tuberculosis, and collagen diseases (such as rheumatoid arthritis and lupus).
  • Causes of transudative fluid are congestive heart failure and liver and kidney diseases. Pulmonary emboli can cause either transudates or exudates in the pleural space.

The fluid can also be tested for the presence of infectious organisms and cancer cells. In some cases, a small piece of pleura may be removed for microscopic study (biopsied) if there is suspicion of tuberculosis (TB) or cancer.

Return to Pleurisy (Pleuritis)

See what others are saying

Comment from: Kathy, 45-54 Female (Patient) Published: February 20

I had just finished eating dinner, relaxing and watching T.V. when I had extreme chest pain under my left breast. I have a mitral valve prolapse (MVP) and at first I thought it was the stabbing pain I sometimes get from it, but this was lasting too long and so severe that I could not sit up straight or take a deep breath. After 20 minutes of this pain it was time to go to the emergency room, they did a EKG, chest X-ray, CT scan and blood work. I was admitted overnight and next day they said It was not cardiac related and to see my doctor for a follow up. When the morphine they gave me at the hospital wore off I was still in extreme pain so my doctor's office said go back to the emergency room, this time the admitting nurse said it could be pleurisy, after the ER doctor at the second hospital saw me she said it is pleurisy. I had never heard of it before, I do not like to take any pills even aspirin but the pain is so extreme that I"m thankful for and willing to take the Vicodin they prescribed. I follow up with my doctor and two other specialist in a week, I wish I"d still never heard of this. Good luck to those of you reading this hang in there, and find out as much as you can.

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Comment from: Mschips, 65-74 Female (Patient) Published: May 09

I just came back from the emergency room (ER). After a chest x-ray, CT-scan, and blood work, the doctor said it was a type of pleurisy. I get this every year. I have rheumatoid arthritis (RA) and this seems to be a result of that. I always get antibiotics which seems to clear it up pretty fast. I am also on a daily dose of prednisone due to the RA. No known reason why the pleurisy is recurrent.

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