Sensitivity of Bedside Ultrasound and Supine Anteroposterior Chest Radiographs for the Identification of Pneumothorax After Blunt Trauma


Address for correspondence and reprints: Michael B. Stone, MD, RDMS; e-mail:


Objectives:  Supine anteroposterior (AP) chest radiographs in patients with blunt trauma have poor sensitivity for the identification of pneumothorax. Ultrasound (US) has been proposed as an alternative screening test for pneumothorax in this population. The authors conducted an evidence-based review of the medical literature to compare sensitivity of bedside US and AP chest radiographs in identifying pneumothorax after blunt trauma.

Methods:  MEDLINE and EMBASE databases were searched for trials from 1965 through June 2009 using a search strategy derived from the following PICO formulation of our clinical question: patients included adult (18 +  years) emergency department (ED) patients in whom pneumothorax was suspected after blunt trauma. The intervention was thoracic ultrasonography for the detection of pneumothorax. The comparator was the supine AP chest radiograph during the initial evaluation of the patient. The outcome was the diagnostic performance of US in identifying the presence of pneumothorax in the study population. The criterion standard for the presence or absence of pneumothorax was computed tomography (CT) of the chest or a rush of air during thoracostomy tube placement (in unstable patients). Prospective, observational trials of emergency physician (EP)-performed thoracic US were included. Trials in which the exams were performed by radiologists or surgeons, or trials that investigated patients suffering penetrating trauma or with spontaneous or iatrogenic pneumothoraces, were excluded. The methodologic quality of the studies was assessed. Qualitative methods were used to summarize the study results. Data analysis consisted of test performance (sensitivity and specificity, with 95% confidence intervals [CIs]) of thoracic US and supine AP chest radiography.

Results:  Four prospective observational studies were identified, with a total of 606 subjects who met the inclusion and exclusion criteria. The sensitivity and specificity of US for the detection of pneumothorax ranged from 86% to 98% and 97% to 100%, respectively. The sensitivity of supine AP chest radiographs for the detection of pneumothorax ranged from 28% to 75%. The specificity of supine AP chest radiographs was 100% in all included studies.

Conclusions:  This evidence-based review suggests that bedside thoracic US is a more sensitive screening test than supine AP chest radiography for the detection of pneumothorax in adult patients with blunt chest trauma.

ACADEMIC EMERGENCY MEDICINE 2010; 17:11–17 © 2010 by the Society for Academic Emergency Medicine