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Subcutaneous emphysema

Definition

Subcutaneous emphysema occurs when air gets into tissues under the skin. This usually occurs in the skin covering the chest wall or neck, but can also occur in other parts of the body.

Alternative Names

Crepitus; Subcutaneous air; Tissue emphysema

Considerations

Subcutaneous emphysema can often be seen as a smooth bulging of the skin. When a health care provider feels (palpates) the skin, it produces an unusual crackling sensation as the gas is pushed through the tissue.

Common Causes

This is a rare condition. When it does occur, possible causes include:

  • Collapsed lung (pneumothorax), often occurring with a rib fracture
  • Facial bone fracture
  • Ruptured bronchial tube
  • Ruptured esophagus

This condition can happen due to:

  • Blunt trauma
  • Breathing in cocaine
  • Corrosives or chemical burns of the esophagus
  • Diving injuries
  • Forceful vomiting" (Boerhaave's syndrome)
  • Gunshot wounds
  • Pertussis (whooping cough)
  • Stabbing
  • Certin medical procedures that insert a tube into the body, such as endoscopy, a central venous line, intubation, and bronchoscopy

Air can also be found in between skin layers on the arms and legs or torso after certain infections, including gas gangrene.

Call your health care provider if

Most of the conditions that cause subcutaneous emphysema are very severe, and you are likely already being treated by a doctor. Sometimes a hospital stay is needed, especially if due to an infection.

References

Wolfson AB. ed: Harwood-Nuss' Clinical Practice of Emergency Medicine. 5th ed. Philadelphia, Pa: Lippincott Williams & Wilkins; 2010.

Review Date: 10/9/2012
Reviewed By: Jacob L. Heller, MD, MHA, Emergency Medicine, Virginia Mason Medical Center, Seattle, Washington. Also reviewed by A.D.A.M. Health Solutions, Ebix, Inc., Editorial Team: David Zieve, MD, MHA, David R. Eltz, and Stephanie Slon.
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