Table of Contents
Definition of Pleural Effusion
Pleural effusion as an accumulation of fluid in the pleural cavity
Pleural effusion refers to a pathologic accumulation of pleural fluid in the pleural cavity that has been caused by either inflammation (pleuritis) or other diseases.
Pleural fluid is physiologically produced at the capillary bed of the parietal pleura and is absorbed by the parietal pleural lymphatics and visceral pleura.
Pathology of Pleural Effusion
Pleural effusion: transudate and exudate
Depending on the overall protein concentration of the pleural effusion, a distinction is made between transudate (< 30 g/L) and exudate (> 30 g/L).
Transudate is a clear fluid containing few cells. It can emerge as a consequence of stasis due to increased hydrostatic pressure, which causes the fluid efflux from the capillaries to increase. Another cause occurs when the colloid osmotic pressure in the vessels decreases (e.g., in the event of hypoalbuminemia), causing more fluid to leak.
Exudate, on the other hand, is rich in cells and is mostly a consequence of inflammation or tumor diseases. Here, the permeability of the capillary walls for tumor cells, plasma proteins, and other blood components increases (barrier dysfunction). These particles will then form part of the pleural effusion, which is why exudate has such a high content of cells and proteins.
In both cases, an increase in lymph production can also be observed. This increased production then exceeds the maximum reabsorption capacity of the pleura and, thus, also contributes to the increased fluid accumulation.
At a glance: study aid for the differentiating criteria of both forms of pleural effusion
|Overall protein concentration||Quotient: protein effusion/ protein serum||LDH||Quotient: LDH effusion/ LDH serum|
|Transudate||< 30 g/L||< 0.5||< 200 U/L||< 0.6|
|Exudate||> 30 g/L||> 0.5||> 200 U/L||> 0.6|
The most telling parameters are the protein and lactate dehydrogenase (LDH) quotients. Therefore, if one of these parameters is elevated (> 0.5 or > 0.6), the fluid is considered exudate.
Special forms of pleural effusion
Chylothorax and hemothorax are special forms of pleural effusion. A chylothorax consists primarily of lymphatic fluid, causing the pleural effusion to be milky and cloudy with a markedly elevated triglyceride content (> 110 mg/dL). A hemothorax is basically an accumulation of blood.
Note: A bloody pleural effusion must be considered suspicious for a tumor until proven otherwise.
Etiology of Pleural Effusion
Causes of pleural effusions
The three most frequent causes of transudate are:
- Lung embolism
- Decompensated left cardiac insufficiency
- Liver cirrhosis
In the case of exudate, pneumonia, malignas, and lung embolisms should be considered. A lung embolism can cause both transudate and exudate. Additional causes are an increased rate of formation, a decreased rate of absorption, and direct extension from the peritoneum. Tuberculosis is the most frequent cause of pleural effusion in patients under 40 years of age.
Study aid: the most important causes of pleural effusion
|Transudate||Increased hydrostatic pressure: decompensated cardiac insufficiency, lung embolism, and venous congestion|
|Decreased colloid osmotic pressure: liver cirrhosis, hypoalbuminemia, nephrotic syndrome, uremia, and exudative enteropathy|
|Exudate||Malignant: bronchial carcinoma (40%), metastases (breast carcinoma, 25%; gastrointestinal, 5%; and ovarian carcinoma, 5%), malignant lymphomas (10%), and pleural mesotheliomas|
|Infectious: pneumonia and tuberculosis|
|Rheumatic: lupus erythematosus and rheumatoid arthritis|
|Others: lung embolism, pancreatitis, pericarditis, and endometriosis|
|Chylothorax||Shifting or lesions of the thoracic duct by tumors/metastases, trauma, or iatrogenic causes|
|Hemothorax||Trauma, iatrogenic (after biopsies or punctures) causes, aortic aneurysm rupture, and pleural malignas|
Symptoms of Pleural Effusion
Dyspnea is the cardinal symptom of pleural effusion
Aside from symptoms that are due to accompanying or underlying diseases, dyspnea is the only direct symptom. A patient’s shortness of breath can be more or less pronounced, depending on the severity of the effusion.
Diagnostics of Pleural Effusion
Anamnesis and clinical examination of pleural effusions
Anamnesis is always the first step in the diagnostic process for pleural effusion. In addition, a healthcare provider must consider different possible etiologies (tumor in medical history, risk factors for lung embolism, etc.).
The clinical examination can reveal an asymmetric chest expansion, with delayed expansion on the side of the effusion. Auscultation presents as decreased or inaudible breath sounds over the effusion. Sometimes, bronchial breath sounds can be heard over the lung parts directly above the effusion because the lung is consolidated, i.e. compressed, in this area.
Also, bronchophony can be absent over the pleural effusion because the vibration is being reflected at the line between lung tissue and pleural effusion (two matters of different density) and is, thus, not conducted to the hand of the examiner. In the case of an effusion > 300 mL, chest examination will also be notable for dullness to percussion. The upper border of this dullness follows a laterally ascending curve (Ellis-Damoiseau line). Palpation of larger effusions is notable for a reduced fremitus over the affected side for the same reasons that bronchophony is absent.
Imaging of pleural effusion
If the torso is erect, the effusion follows gravity and accumulates on the costophrenic angles of the pleural spaces (costodiaphragmatic recess). The most sensitive and gentle way to confirm a pleural effusion diagnosis is through the use of sonography while the patient is sitting down. This way, effusions with a volume of 20 mL or more will be depicted as an anechoic (= dark) area. Sonographic imaging also allows for the assessment of the pleura (fibrosis? tumor?) and the organization of the effusion, as well as for identifying a suitable puncture site.
Chest X-rays for diagnosing pleural effusions can be made in different positions and planes:
|Position and plane||Limit of detection
|Lateral decubitus (with the affected side facing down)||100 mL||Chest X-ray in lateral decubitus position with evidence of pleural effusion|
|Erect (lateral projection)||150 mL||Recesses easily visible because they reach down furthest on the dorsal side|
|Erect posterior-anterior (PA) projection||200 mL||Pleural effusion left and right with bilateral shadowed costophrenic angles|
In X-ray images, the effusion is depicted as a homogenous shadow, which sometimes ascends laterally (crescent sign). When the patient is standing, this shadow is usually seen in the lowest costodiaphragmatic recesses. Furthermore, the diaphragm is usually difficult to identify because an extensive decrease in transparency of the entire lung is possible along with a mediastinal shift to the opposing side. In rare cases, atypical localizations of the effusion may be found: for example, encapsulated and intralobular (DD: round lesion) or encapsulated in the area of pleural adhesions.
Left pleural effusion with mediastinal shift to the opposing side:
When the etiology is unclear, thoracic computed tomography (CT) scans will typically be performed as part of advanced diagnostic procedures. CT scans will detect even the smallest amounts of effusion, which will be notable as sickle-shaped consolidations between the lung and thoracic wall.
Thoracic CT scan with distinct pleural effusion, right
Pleural puncture: diagnostics and treatment
For the purposes of differential diagnosis, an important step is to obtain testing material through a puncture of the pleural effusion. This procedure applies, in particular, to any case of a first or etiologically unclear pleural effusion.
For this procedure, the patient is sitting down, a local anesthetic is applied, and the puncture needle is inserted dorsally into the area of the effusion. However, the needle must not be inserted below the ninth rib (to avoid sub-diaphragmatic injuries). It is crucial to insert the needle at the upper edge of the rib to prevent any injuries to the nerves and vessels at the inferior edge of the rib. In cases of encapsulated effusions or atypical localizations, the finding of the puncture site should be assisted sonographically.
The material obtained from the puncture should be stored in four tubes:
- The first tube is for microbiology. From this material, a bacterial culture is made in order to perform a gram stain and, in cases of suspected tuberculosis, a Ziehl-Neelsen stain. This tube must be kept sterile at all times.
- The second tube is for clinical chemistry. With this material, various parameters will be determined such as cell count (e.g., lymphocytosis for cases of tuberculosis and sarcoidosis), pH level, glucose (diminished glucose levels and an acidic pH suggest an inflammatory or malignant genesis), triglyceride (elevated in cases of a chylothorax), amylase and lipase (elevated in cases of a pancreatic effusion caused by pancreatitis, pancreas carcinoma, or others), and specific tumor markers in cases of a suspected tumor disease.
- The third tube is for pathology. Here, a cytologic smear is prepared for the evaluation of malignancy. Indications for malignancy would include inter alia, a shift in the nucleus-plasma relation, many mitoses, and multinucleated cells.
- A fourth tube is kept for other, not yet foreseeable, examinations.
Macroscopically, a first assessment of the punctured effusion can be made:
|Serous||Bright, clear, ‘amber’ fluid: mostly transudate with few cells|
|Hemorrhagic||Reddish: bloody transudate or exudate—trauma or malignancy?|
|Chylous||Milky and cloudy: chylothorax|
|Purulent||Yellowish and dull: exudate in cases of pleural empyema, tuberculosis, or abscesses|
The puncture furthermore provides relief for the patient and can thus be considered as part of symptomatic treatment, especially in cases of severe dyspnea due to lung compression and cardiopulmonary strains due to a mediastinal shift (i.e. in very severe cases of pleural effusions).
Note: Every pleural puncture should be followed by a chest X-ray to exclude iatrogenic pneumothorax.
Treatment of Pleural Effusion
Pleural draining and pleurodesis
Treating the underlying disease should be the focus of any treatment approach. When this treatment is followed through, transudates will most likely resolve completely.
As explained in the section on diagnostics, larger effusions with severe dyspnea are therapeutically punctured in order to relieve the patient’s shortness of breath. However, never extract more than 1.5 L in a single session because there is the risk of re-expansion edema or great losses of protein. Therefore, for larger effusions, treatment consists of suction drainage over the course of several days.
If the pleural effusion is recurrent (especially in cases of malignant genesis) and/or cannot be controlled with medication, chemical pleurodesis can be performed. After the puncture of the effusion, a fibrosing substance (e.g., talcum) is introduced into the pleural cavity through the chest drain. The substance triggers an inflammatory reaction that causes the two pleural layers to adhere to each other and, thus, prevents any further accumulation of fluids in the pleural cavity.
For a well-aimed biopsy and the isolation of histologic tissue samples in cases of malignant effusions, and also for additional bacteriologic diagnostics of non-controllable parapneumonic effusions and pleural empyema, an additional video-assisted thoracoscopy may be performed as well.
Complications of Pleural Effusion
Pleural fibrosis and pleural empyema
Sometimes, the formation of pleural fibrosis follows a pleural effusion, which manifests as cicatricial altered, mostly thickened, adhesions of the pleurae.
If the pleural effusion is the result of pneumonia, it is called a parapneumonic effusion. These effusions, in particular, tend to become infected and are then further classified, by using various parameters, as uncomplicated (= not infected), complicated (= infected), or pleural empyema (= infected).
|Puncture specimen||Detection of bacteria||Leukocytes||pH|
|Pleural empyema||Purulent||+||+++||< 7.1|