Current guidelines suggest that traumatic pneumothorax (tPTX) is a contraindication to commercial airline travel, and patients should wait at least 2 weeks after radiographic resolution of tPTX to fly. This recommendation is not based on prospective, physiologic study. We hypothesized that despite having a radiographic increase in pneumothorax size while at simulated altitude, patients with a recently treated tPTX would not exhibit any adverse physiologic changes and would not report any symptoms of cardiorespiratory compromise.
This is a prospective, observational study of 20 patients (10 in Phase 1, 10 in Phase 2) with tPTX that has been treated by chest tube (CT) or high flow oxygen therapy. CT must have been removed within 48 hours of entering the study. Subjects were exposed to 2 hours of hypobaria (554 mm Hg in Phase 1, 471 mm Hg in Phase 2) in a chamber in Salt Lake City, Utah. Vital signs and subjective symptoms were recorded during the “flight.” After 2 hours, while still at simulated altitude, a portable chest radiograph (CXR) was obtained. tPTX sizes on preflight, inflight, and postflight CXR were compared.
Sixteen subjects (80%) were male. Mean (SD) age and ISS were 49 (5) years and 10.5 (4.6), respectively. Fourteen (70%) had a CT to treat tPTX, which had been removed 19 hours (range, 4–43 hours) before the study. No subject complained of any cardiorespiratory symptoms while at altitude. Radiographic increase in tPTX size at altitude was 5.6 (0.61) mm from preflight CXR. No subject developed a tension tPTX. No subject required procedural intervention during the flight. Four hours after the study, all tPTX had returned to baseline size.
Patients with recently treated tPTX have a small increase in the size of tPTX when subjected to simulated altitude. This is clinically well tolerated. Current prohibitions regarding air travel following traumatic tPTX should be reconsidered and further studied.
LEVEL OF EVIDENCE
Therapeutic study, level IV.