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Diaphragmatic Injuries Workup

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

Imaging Studies

Chest radiography is the single most important diagnostic study and may show elevation of the hemidiaphragm, a bowel pattern in the chest, or a nasogastric (NG) tube passing into the abdomen and then curling up into the chest. Additionally, a hemothorax, while not specific for diaphragmatic injuries, may be the only chest radiographic finding. The chest radiograph does not allow direct visualization of the diaphragmatic injury/defect but rather the associated herniation or other injuries. The initial chest radiograph is nondiagnostic in approximately 10-40% of patients. Repeated chest radiograph may be helpful. The chest radiographic findings may be masked if the patient is being positive-pressure ventilated (intubated) because this may reduce any herniation. Therefore, obtaining the chest radiograph before intubation or after extubation may be more helpful.

The liver often protects a right-sided rupture from visceral herniation, and, thus, these ruptures may appear only as an elevated hemidiaphragm from a partially herniated liver. Left-sided ruptures are more evident when the bowel is herniated into the chest.

Chest radiograph of a blunt left diaphragmatic injury often shows an abnormal or wide mediastinum, even when the aorta is normal. The mediastinum should be investigated because of the association with aortic injury discussed previously.

Ultrasonography is used commonly in trauma and may visualize large disruptions or herniation; however, it may miss small tears from penetrating injuries.

New-generation helical CT scanning is helpful but not 100% sensitive because of its poor visualization of the diaphragm. A diagnosis can be made if herniation of abdominal contents is visualized.

Multidector CT has shown improvement in identifying penetrating and blunt diaphragmatic injury with the use of thin sections and multiplanar formats.[7, 8]  

In a study of 64-slice MDCT for identifying traumatic diaphragmatic rupture, overall sensitivity was 66.7%, specificity 100%, positive predictive value 100%, and negative predictive value 88.4%. However, only 3 of 9 patients with penetrating injury received a correct diagnosis preoperatively.[9]

MRI may aid in the diagnosis because it can accurately visualize the diaphragm's anatomy. MRI may be used in a patient in stable condition who has an equivocal diagnosis and no need for laparotomy (some penetrating injuries) or for late diagnosis.

Thoracoscopy has been used to better visualize the diaphragm when the diagnosis is unconfirmed and laparotomy is not required.

When considering a delayed diagnosis, chest radiography and contrast studies (via NG or enema) often are used. MRI typically is an ideal diagnostic test in this instance.


Other Tests

Diagnostic peritoneal lavage

When diagnostic peritoneal lavage (DPL) is used to detect diaphragmatic injury, a false-negative result may occur. An isolated penetrating injury from the chest can cause bleeding into the lesser sac, which may not communicate with the rest of the peritoneal cavity. A DPL in this situation would show no evidence of bleeding.

Drainage of lavage fluid from the chest tube has been reported and is a positive result.

In blunt trauma, the DPL result is often positive because of the associated injuries and not specifically because of the diaphragmatic tear.

In penetrating chest injuries, most centers use 10,000 RBC/mm3, a more sensitive criterion than normally used, to limit the number of false-negative results.

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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