Pneumothorax during manned chamber operations: A summary of reported cases

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Undersea & Hyperbaric Medicine


In-chamber pneumothorax has complicated medically remote professional diving operations, submarine escape training, management of decompression illness, and hospital-based provision of hyperbaric oxygen therapy. Attempts to avoid thoracotomy by combination of high oxygen partial pressure breathing (the concept of inherent unsaturation) and greatly slowed rates of chamber decompression proved successful on several occasions. When this delicate balance designed to prevent the intrapleural gas volume from expanding faster than it contracts proved futile, chest drains were inserted. The presence of pneumothorax was misdiagnosed or missed altogether with disturbing frequency, resulting in wide-ranging clinical consequences. One patient succumbed before the chamber had been fully decompressed. Another was able to ambulate unaided from the chamber before being diagnosed and managed conventionally. In between these two extremes, patients experienced varying degrees of clinical compromise, from respiratory distress to cardiopulmonary arrest, with successful resuscitation. Pneumothorax associated with manned chamber operations is commonly considered to develop while the patient is under pressure and manifests during ascent. However, published reports suggest that many were pre-existing prior to chamber entry. Risk factors included pulmonary barotrauma-induced cerebral arterial gas embolism, cardiopulmonary resuscitation, and medical or surgical procedures usually involving the lung. This latter category is of heightened importance to hyperbaric operations as an iatrogenically induced pneumothorax may take as long as 24 hours to be detected, perhaps long after a patient has been cleared for chamber exposure.

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