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What is an Air Pocket?

Mary McMahon
Updated Mar 03, 2024
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An air pocket is a pocket of air or gas somewhere in the body where it does not belong. There are some areas in which such pockets may be normal; the stomach, for example, often has some air in it, which people bring up when they belch, and gas and air can also be present in the intestines, in which case they are expressed from the body by other means. Some of this is the result of swallowed air, and some of it is created by microorganisms in the gut that generate gases as they digest food. When air is somewhere where it shouldn't be, however, it can become a problem.

There are a number of ways in which an air pocket can form. Trauma is a common cause, with a membrane being breached and allowing air into a location which it does not normally appear. Pockets and bubbles can also be caused by air in a needle or intravenous tube, by air in a feeding tube, and so forth.

One type can form between the layers of the pleura that surround the lungs, causing a condition called pneumothorax or collapsed lung. The air creates pressure, which forces a lung to collapse, causing difficulty breathing. This commonly occurs as a result of trauma, although spontaneous pneumothorax can occur in some patients.

Air pockets can also form on the brain. This is usually caused by trauma, which breaches the layers of bone and tissue which protect the brain, and it can force out the cerebrospinal fluid that protects the brain, endangering the patient. Air can also be present in the fluid that surrounds the spine.

In the blood, air pockets can cause a condition called pulmonary embolism, in which the air blocks a blood vessel. This condition can be fatal if it happens in the wrong place, and it can certainly impair circulation and put someone at risk of tissue death. Pulmonary embolisms can happen as a result of medical mistakes, and as a result of moving from an area of low pressure to an area of high pressure quickly, so that dissolved gases in the blood form bubbles before they can be expressed.

Air pockets can be diagnosed with medical imaging studies, in which the air will show up in the area being studied. Ultrasounds, MRIs, and a variety of other techniques can be used to find them. These deposits of air generally need to be addressed quickly to prevent complications.

The Health Board is dedicated to providing accurate and trustworthy information. We carefully select reputable sources and employ a rigorous fact-checking process to maintain the highest standards. To learn more about our commitment to accuracy, read our editorial process.
Mary McMahon
By Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a The Health Board researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

Discussion Comments
By anon1002158 — On Sep 18, 2019

How long does it take for the air pocket to disappear?

By anon927985 — On Jan 26, 2014

I have been in pain since oral surgery in 2012. I think it is an air pocket. I have been treated for trigeminal neurologic nerve and put on all medicine. I can't take anything. I've had shots, but am still in pain. --N

By anon273639 — On Jun 07, 2012

@Illych: Air pockets in the blood from a medical mistake do not happen very often. There would have to be a lot of air forced into a blood vessel.

@lapsed: Air pockets in the air have to do with pressure changes.

@Hiding place: Thrombus happens on a plane from lack of circulation, when the thrombus detaches it becomes an embolus. It detaches after you get off of the plane and it can go into the lungs (pulmonary thromboembolism) or just about anywhere such as the heart or even ulnar artery.

By hidingplace — On May 01, 2011

@lapsed - Pulmonary embolisms can happen on planes but is usually due to lack of circulation from extended sitting on a long flight.

The types of problems air pockets cause in the blood usually happens to divers.

By lapsed — On Apr 28, 2011

I wonder if this relates to turbulence on airplanes being referred to as "air pockets" also? It's been my impression that turbulence can result in the plane going up very quickly or down very quickly, which might relate to moving from an area of low pressure to an are of high pressure causing pulmonary embolisms. As far as I know no one has ever experienced a pulmonary embolism from turbulence, though.

By Illych — On Apr 28, 2011

I always wondered why it seemed to be common knowledge that injecting a needle with nothing in it was dangerous. I'd heard of the idea of "air bubbles" but for some reason thought it was a myth.

I guess medical mistakes are always a risk, but I haven't heard of it happening before and I've been hooked up to intravenous tubes quite a few times, so it's probably nothing to worry about.

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a...

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