Diaphragmatic Injuries Clinical Presentation

  • Author: Michelle Welsford, MD, FACEP, FRCPC(Canada); Chief Editor: Trevor John Mills, MD, MPH  more...
Updated: Oct 08, 2015


Clinical presentation varies depending on the mechanism of injury (ie, blunt vs penetrating) and the presence of associated injuries. Symptoms of diaphragmatic injuries frequently are masked by associated injuries. The diaphragm is integral to normal ventilation, and injuries can result in significant ventilatory compromise. A history of respiratory difficulty and related pulmonary symptoms may indicate diaphragmatic disruption.

Diaphragmatic tears rarely occur in isolation. These patients often have associated thoracic and/or abdominal injuries or may have concomitant head or extremity trauma. The rates for associated injuries in blunt diaphragmatic rupture are as follows:

  • Pelvic fractures in 40%
  • Splenic rupture in 25%
  • Liver laceration in 25%
  • Thoracic aortic tear in 5-10%

Diaphragmatic rupture and thoracic aortic disruption are uniquely associated in blunt trauma. In a retrospective chart review, 1.8% of patients with blunt trauma had a diaphragmatic rupture, 1.1% had a thoracic aortic tear, and 10.1% had both.[5] In this last group, the mechanism for all was a high-speed MVC. This association, although rare, is important to consider. The review authors suggested that when one diagnosis is evident, the clinician should further investigate the possibility of the other associated injury.



The physical examination should focus initially on airway, ventilation, and circulation, with concomitant management of airway, ventilatory, or circulatory compromise. Examination of the neck and chest should include a particular focus on findings of tracheal deviation (ie, mediastinal shift), symmetry of chest expansion, and absence of breath sounds (ie, lung displacement). Since the incidence of associated injuries is high, physical findings typically are dictated by these other injuries.

  • Early diagnosis
    • Diagnosis may not be obvious. It is made preoperatively in only 40-50% of left-sided and 0-10% of right-sided blunt diaphragmatic ruptures. In 10-50% of patients, diagnosis is not made in the first 24 hours.
    • Traumatic diaphragmatic injuries are just one of many injuries that can cause acute respiratory compromise.
    • Physical examination is limited in its utility in diagnosing this injury, but diaphragm injury may be identified by auscultation of bowel sounds in the chest or dullness on percussion of the chest. A penetrating injury to the abdomen with a suggestion of a lung or thoracic injury indicates transgression of the diaphragm as would a chest injury with any suggestion of abdominal injury.
  • Delayed diagnosis
    • If not made in the first 4 hours, the diagnosis may be delayed for months or years. Thus, 10-50% of blunt injuries (and an even greater percentage in penetrating trauma) are diagnosed late. This number is decreasing because of greater awareness and earlier identification.
    • Although the diagnosis may be missed regardless of mechanism, seemingly innocent penetrating injuries may be long forgotten by the patient and are the most commonly missed diaphragmatic injury.
  • The 3 clinical phases of diaphragmatic injuries were first described by Grimes. [6]
    • The first, or acute, phase begins with the injury.
    • If not diagnosed early, the second, or latent, phase occurs. This phase is asymptomatic but may evolve into gradual herniation of abdominal contents. The diagnosis may be made later because of complications of herniation of abdominal contents into the pleural cavity.
    • The third, or obstructive phase, is characterized by bowel or visceral herniation, obstruction, incarceration, strangulation, and possible rupture of the stomach and colon. If herniation causes significant lung compression, it can lead to tension pneumothorax. Cardiac tamponade has been described from herniation of abdominal contents into the pericardium. Diaphragmatic paralysis also may occur.


The 2 primary mechanisms of traumatic diaphragmatic injuries are blunt or penetrating trauma. Blunt traumatic injuries occur most commonly from MVCs or falls. Penetrating injuries most commonly occur from gunshot or knife injuries to the chest or abdomen.

Contributor Information and Disclosures

Michelle Welsford, MD, FACEP, FRCPC(Canada) Associate Professor, Division of Emergency Medicine, Department of Medicine, McMaster University School of Medicine; Staff Emergency Physician, Hamilton Health Sciences; Medical Director, Centre for Paramedic Education and Research

Michelle Welsford, MD, FACEP, FRCPC(Canada) is a member of the following medical societies: American College of Emergency Physicians, American Heart Association, Ontario Medical Association, Canadian Association of Emergency Physicians, Canadian Medical Association, National Association of EMS Physicians, Royal College of Physicians and Surgeons of Canada

Disclosure: Nothing to disclose.

Specialty Editor Board

Francisco Talavera, PharmD, PhD Adjunct Assistant Professor, University of Nebraska Medical Center College of Pharmacy; Editor-in-Chief, Medscape Drug Reference

Disclosure: Received salary from Medscape for employment. for: Medscape.

David B Levy, DO, FAAEM Senior Consultant in Emergency Medicine, Waikato District Health Board, New Zealand; Associate Professor of Emergency Medicine, Northeastern Ohio Universities College of Medicine

David B Levy, DO, FAAEM is a member of the following medical societies: American Academy of Emergency Medicine, Fellowship of the Australasian College for Emergency Medicine, American Medical Informatics Association, Society for Academic Emergency Medicine

Disclosure: Nothing to disclose.

Chief Editor

Trevor John Mills, MD, MPH Chief of Emergency Medicine, Veterans Affairs Northern California Health Care System; Professor of Emergency Medicine, Department of Emergency Medicine, University of California, Davis, School of Medicine

Trevor John Mills, MD, MPH is a member of the following medical societies: American Academy of Emergency Medicine, American College of Emergency Physicians

Disclosure: Nothing to disclose.

Additional Contributors

Steven A Conrad, MD, PhD Chief, Department of Emergency Medicine; Chief, Multidisciplinary Critical Care Service, Professor, Department of Emergency and Internal Medicine, Louisiana State University Health Sciences Center

Steven A Conrad, MD, PhD is a member of the following medical societies: American College of Chest Physicians, American College of Critical Care Medicine, American College of Emergency Physicians, American College of Physicians, International Society for Heart and Lung Transplantation, Louisiana State Medical Society, Shock Society, Society for Academic Emergency Medicine, Society of Critical Care Medicine

Disclosure: Nothing to disclose.

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