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What is Subcutaneous Emphysema?

By D. Jeffress
Updated Mar 03, 2024
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Subcutaneous emphysema refers to the presence of air or gas inside skin tissue layers. The condition usually occurs when air escapes the lungs or airways through a tear or puncture. A person may notice swelling in the neck and chest and palpable bubbles that make a cracking noise when they are pressed. In most cases, subcutaneous emphysema itself is not painful nor does it cause major complications. The underlying cause is typically the major concern for doctors, and treating it quickly is necessary to prevent severe cardiac or respiratory problems.

Many different illnesses and injuries can result in subcutaneous emphysema. Many cases are caused by trauma to the chest or neck. A gunshot, knife wound, or blunt force from a fall or car accident can all damage the lungs or trachea. Severe lung infections, chronic diseases, and cancers may weaken lung tissue linings and lead to lung collapse. Occasionally, a botched surgery or an improperly placed chest tube can cause air leakage into the chest cavity as well.

Subcutaneous emphysema caused by penetrating or blunt trauma is usually not the main concern of health professionals. The condition may not be noticed or addressed until lifesaving measures have been taken to stop bleeding or re-inflate a damaged lung. After a patient is stable, doctors can look for signs of emphysema.

The most common symptoms include light swelling, chest and neck pain, and difficulty breathing. Crackling bubbles can usually be felt, moved around, and broken apart underneath the skin. Chest x-rays and computerized tomography scans may be taken to determine the amount and exact location of air pockets.

Most cases of subcutaneous emphysema do not need to be treated directly. Air bubbles tend to dissipate on their own over a few hours as long as problems with the lungs and airways have already been corrected. If a small amount of air persists, a doctor may choose to make several small, deep incisions into the skin to allow gas to escape. Catheters may be used to draw large quantities of air from the chest cavity and surrounding skin tissue.

Additional treatment may be needed if there is enough remaining air to put excess pressure on the trachea or lungs. A chest tube can be inserted to suction out the chest cavity. A patient may need to wear an oxygen mask or receive a breathing tube while subsequent repairs are made to the lungs and airways.

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Discussion Comments

By SarahSon — On Mar 28, 2012

I have a friend who was given an emphysema diagnosis after he had trouble breathing and was wheezing. This surprised him because he has never been a smoker.

He has worked around farm chemicals for a long time, and they think these were absorbed in his system and caused the damage to his lungs.

There is nothing that will improve his condition, but he is given some medication that will help him control his symptoms.

I had always associated emphysema with someone who smoked or had lung cancer. It is too bad this had to happen to someone who always tried to take good care of himself.

By honeybees — On Mar 28, 2012

My uncle suffers from chronic emphysema after smoking for most of his life. He tried to quit many times, but was never able to quit for very long.

Because of this emphysema he has oxygen to help him breathe. Even with the oxygen, he can't walk very far without getting weak and out of breath.

This was the thing that finally motivated him to quit smoking for good. It is too bad he had to wait to get to this point before he was able to stop smoking.

He doesn't have a very good quality of life, and knows his emphysema could have been prevented if he had never started smoking so many years ago.

By julies — On Mar 27, 2012

When my sister was a teenager she was involved in a very bad car accident. There was a long list of things that were wrong with her. She had subcutaneous emphysema symptoms and they discovered she had a punctured lung.

This must have been caused from the trauma of the accident. She had a lot of internal and external injuries, so it was not a surprise to find this out.

She was on oxygen for several days. She was in the hospital for several months following this accident. It was a long road to recovery that included many hard days of physical therapy.

Thankfully, the subcutaneous emphysema was one of the things that didn't take too long to resolve. She also didn't have any further complications from it once it was taken care of.

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