3D illustration of the lungs. Symptoms of pleurisy include pain in the chest, which is aggravated by breathing in, shortness of breath, and local tenderness.Source: iStock
Things to know about pleurisy
- Pleurisy involves inflammation of the tissue layers (pleura) lining the lungs and inner chest wall.
- Pleurisy is often associated with the accumulation of fluid between the two layers of pleura, known as pleural effusion.
- Pleurisy is caused by a variety of conditions, such as
- Symptoms of pleurisy include pain in the chest, which is aggravated by breathing in, shortness of breath, and local tenderness. This pain can affect the chest cavity in either the front or back of the cavity and sometimes patients have back or shoulder pain.
- The diagnosis of pleurisy is made by the characteristic chest pain and physical findings on examination of the chest. The sometimes-associated pleural accumulation of fluid (pleural effusion) can be seen by imaging studies (chest X-ray, ultrasound, or CT).
- Analysis of pleural fluid aspirated from the chest can help determine the cause of pleurisy.
- Treatment of the underlying conditions is key to the proper management of pleurisy.
When is thoracentesis performed?
Thoracentesis is performed when the pleural fluid gets collected in the chest (pleural effusion) and your doctor wants to determine the reason for it besides reducing your symptoms due to the effusion. Common conditions for which thoracentesis may be performed are as follows:
- Pleural effusion associated with congestive heart failure (a condition in which the heart does not properly pump out blood to the body)
- Empyema (an area of pus in the pleural space that is the space between the two layers of the pleura)
- Pulmonary embolism
- Congestive heart failure
- Pulmonary hypertension
- Liver failure
Illustration of pleurisy showing inflammation of the lung lining and accumulation of extra fluid.Source: MedicineNet
What is pleurisy?
Pleurisy describes the chest pain syndrome characterized by a sharp chest cavity pain that worsens with breathing.
Pleurisy is caused by inflammation of the linings around the lungs (the pleura), a condition also known as pleuritis. There are two layers of pleura: one covering the lung (termed the visceral pleura) and the other covering the inner wall of the chest (the parietal pleura). These two layers are lubricated by pleural fluid.
Pleurisy is frequently associated with the accumulation of extra fluid in the space between the two layers of pleura. This fluid is referred to as a pleural effusion.
The pain fibers of the lung are located in the pleura. When this tissue becomes inflamed, it results in a sharp pain in the chest that is worse with breathing. Other symptoms of pleurisy can include cough, chest tenderness, and shortness of breath.
Figure B shows lungs with pleurisy and pneumothorax. The inset image shows a detailed view of an infected lung with thickened and inflamed pleural layers.Source: "Pleurisy and pneumothorax" by National Heart Lung and Blood Institute
What causes pleurisy?
Pleurisy can be caused by any of the following conditions:
- Infections: bacterial (including those that cause tuberculosis), fungi, parasites, or viruses
- Inhaled chemicals or toxic substances: exposure to some cleaning agents like ammonia
- Collagen vascular diseases: lupus, rheumatoid arthritis
- Cancers: for example, the spread of lung cancer or breast cancer to the pleura
- Tumors of the pleura: mesothelioma or sarcoma
- Congestion: heart failure
- Pulmonary embolism: blood clot inside the blood vessels to the lungs. These clots sometimes severely reduce blood and oxygen to portions of the lung and can result in death to that portion of lung tissue (termed lung infarction). This, too, can cause pleurisy.
- Obstruction of lymph channels: as a result of centrally located lung tumors
- Trauma: rib fractures or irritation from chest tubes used to drain air or fluid from the pleural cavity in the chest
- Certain drugs: drugs that can cause lupus-like syndromes (such as hydralazine [Apresoline], Procan [Pronestyl, Procan-SR, Procanbid - these brands no longer are available in the U.S.], phenytoin [Dilantin], and others)
- Abdominal processes: such as pancreatitis, cirrhosis of the liver, gallbladder disease, and damage to the spleen.
- Pneumothorax: air in the pleural space, occurring spontaneously or from trauma.
Illustration and anatomy of the pleura, lungs and chest wall.Source: "2313 The Lung Pleurea" by OpenStax College - Anatomy & Physiology, Connexions Web site. http://cnx.org/content/col11496/1.6/, Jun 19, 2013.. Licensed under CC BY 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons
How does the pleura work?
The pleura is composed of two layers of thin lining tissue. The layer covering the lung (visceral pleura) and the parietal pleura that covers the inner wall of the chest are lubricated by pleural fluid. Normally, there are about 10-20 ml of a clear liquid that acts as a lubricant between these layers. The fluid is continually absorbed and replaced, mainly through the outer lining of the pleura.
The pressure inside the pleura is negative (as in sucking) and becomes even more negative during inspiration (breathing in). The pressure becomes less negative during exhalation (breathing out). Therefore, the space between the two layers of pleura always has negative pressure. The introduction of air (positive pressure) into the space (such as from a knife wound) will result in a collapse of the lung.
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A doctor described his symptoms of pleurisy with his doctor.Source: iStock
What are the symptoms of pleurisy?
Symptoms of pleurisy include:
- pain in the chest that is aggravated by breathing,
- shortness of breath, and/or
- a "stabbing" sensation.
The most common symptom of pleurisy is pain that is generally aggravated by inspiration (breathing in). Although the lungs themselves do not contain any pain nerves, the pleura contains abundant nerve endings. When extra fluid accumulates in the space between the layers of pleura, the pain usually is a less severe form of pleurisy. With very large amounts of fluid accumulation, the expansion of the lungs can be limited, and shortness of breath can worsen.
The chest (thoracic) cavity represents both the front and back of the upper portion of the body. If the inflammation is more toward the back, then the pain may be described as back pain. Of importance is that with pleurisy; the pain will worsen with deep breaths. Most other causes of back pain don't have this quality, however, for some people, back pain will worsen with cough. (As can be seen in spinal disc disease.)
A doctor examines the chest X-ray in the lung area. A chest X-ray is taken in the upright position and while lying on the side is a tool for diagnosing fluid in the pleural space.Source: Getty Images
How do medical professionals diagnose pleurisy?
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
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 is taken in the upright position and while lying on the side is a tool for diagnosing 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 a method of detecting the presence of pleural fluid.
A CT scan can be very helpful in detecting very small amounts of fluid and 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.
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Illustration showing treatment of pleurisy by thoracentesis where excess fluid is drained into a bag or syringe.Source: "Thoracentesis" by National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute - Thoracentesis. Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons
What are treatments for pleurisy? Thoracentesis
External splinting of the chest wall and pain medication can reduce the pain of pleurisy. Treatment of the underlying disease, of course, ultimately relieves pleurisy. For example, if a heart, lung, or kidney condition is present, it is treated. Removal of fluid from the chest cavity (thoracentesis) can relieve the pain and shortness of breath. Sometimes fluid removal can make pleurisy temporarily worse because, without the lubrication of the fluid, the two inflamed pleural surfaces can rub directly on each other with each breath.
If the pleural fluid shows signs of infection, appropriate treatment involves antibiotics and drainage of the fluid. If there is pus inside the pleural space, a chest drainage tube should be inserted. This procedure involves placing a tube inside the chest under local anesthesia. The tube is then connected to a sealed chamber that is connected to a suction device in order to create a negative pressure environment. In severe cases, in which there are large amounts of pus and scar tissue (adhesions), there is a need for "decortication." This procedure involves examining the pleural space under general anesthesia with a special scope (thoracoscope). Through this pipelike instrument, the scar tissue, pus, and debris can be removed. Sometimes, an open surgical procedure (thoracotomy) is required for more complicated cases.
In cases of pleural effusion that result from cancer, the fluid often reaccumulates. In this setting, a procedure called pleurodesis is used. This procedure entails instilling an irritant, such as bleomycin, tetracycline, or talc powder, inside the space between the pleural layers in order to create inflammation. This inflammation, in turn, will adhere or tack the two layers of pleura together as scarring develops. This procedure thereby obliterates the space between the pleura and prevents the reaccumulation of fluid.
Is it possible to prevent pleurisy?
Some cases of pleurisy can be prevented, depending on the cause. For example, early intervention in treating pneumonia may prevent the accumulation of pleural fluid. In the case of heart, lung, or kidney disease, management of the underlying disease can help prevent fluid collection.
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Medically Reviewed on 4/14/2022
Medically reviewed by Joseph Palermo, DO; Board Certificate: Internal Medicine/Geriatric Medicine
Kasper, D.L., et al., eds. Harrison's Principles of Internal Medicine, 19th Ed. United States: McGraw-Hill Education, 2015.