Chest x-rays often miss pneumothoraces in the trauma room. These are occult pneumothoraces. A study using agreement by two fellowship trained radiologists as the gold standard for CXR interpretation showed that 80% of these were truly occult, ie. not detectable by the radiologists from CXR and only demonstrable on CT. Of those seven cases that could or should have been identified by emergency physicians (ie. ‘missed’ pneumothoraces) subcutaneous emphysema (5), pleural line (3), and deep sulcus sign (2) were detected by the radiologist reviewers.
This serves both as a reminder of the signs to look for on CXR for pneumothorax, and of the inadequacy of plain radiography in trauma patients. The authors advise in their discussion that ‘Thoracic ultrasonography may be the ideal diagnostic modality as it has a high sensitivity for the detection of PTX and it may be performed quickly at the bedside while maintaining spinal precautions’.
If you don’t know how to detect a pneumothorax with ultrasound yet, have a look here.
Occult Pneumothoraces Truly Occult or Simply Missed: Redux
J Trauma. 2010 Dec;69(6):1335-7