Pleurisy is an inflammation of the membrane that surrounds and protects the lungs (the pleura). Inflammation occurs when an infection or damaging agent irritates the pleural surface. As a consequence, sharp chest pains are the primary symptom of pleurisy.

Pleurisy, also called pleuritis, is a condition that generally stems from anexisting respiratory infection, disease, or injury. In people who have otherwise good health, respiratory infections or pneumonia are the main causes of pleurisy. This condition used to be more common, but with the advent of antibiotics and modern disease therapies, pleurisy has become less prevalent.

The pleura is a double-layered structure made up of an inner membrane, whichsurrounds the lungs, and an outer membrane, which lines the chest cavity. Thepleural membranes are very thin, close together, and have a fluid coating inthe narrow space between them. This liquid acts as a lubricant, so that whenthe lungs inflate and deflate during breathing, the pleural surfaces can easily glide over one another.

Pleurisy occurs when the pleural surfaces rub against one another, due to irritation and inflammation. Infection within the pleural space is the most common irritant, although the abnormal presence of air, blood, or cells can alsoinitiate pleurisy. These disturbances all act to displace the normal pleuralfluid, which forces the membranes to rub, rather than glide, against one another. This rubbing irritates nerve endings in the outer membrane and causes pain. Pleurisy also causes a chest noise that ranges from a faint squeak to a loud creak. This characteristic sound is called a "friction rub."

Pleurisy cases are classified either as having pleural effusion or as being "dry." Pleural effusion is more common and refers to an accumulation of fluidwithin the pleural space; dry pleurisy is inflammation without fluid build-up. Less pain occurs with pleural effusion because the fluid forces the membrane surfaces apart. However, pleural effusion causes additional complications because it places pressure on the lungs. This leads to respiratory distress and possible lung collapse.

A variety of conditions can give rise to pleurisy. The following list represents the most common sources of pleural inflammation.

  • Infections, including pneumonia, tuberculosis, and other bacterial or viral respiratory infections
  • Immune disorders, including systemic lupus erythematosus, rheumatoid arthritis, and sarcoidosis
  • Diseases, including cancer, pancreatitis, liver cirrhosis, and heart or kidney failure
  • Injury, from a rib fracture, collapsed lung, esophagus rupture, blood clot, or material suchas asbestos
  • Drug reactions, from certain drugs used to treat tuberculosis (isoniazid), cancer (methotrexate, procarbazine), or the immune disorders mentioned above (hydralazine, procainamide, phenytoin, quinidine).

The hallmark symptom of pleurisy is sudden, intense chest pain that is usually located over the area of inflammation. Although the pain can be constant, it is usually most severe when the lungs move during breathing, coughing, sneezing, or even talking. The pain is usually described as shooting or stabbing,but in minor cases it resembles a mild cramp. When pleurisy occurs in certain locations, such as near the diaphragm, the pain may be felt in other areassuch as the neck, shoulder, or abdomen (referred pain). Another indication ofpleurisy is that holding one's breath or exerting pressure against the chestcauses pain relief.

Pleurisy is also characterized by certain respiratory symptoms. In response to the pain, pleurisy patients commonly have a rapid, shallow breathing pattern. Pleural effusion can also cause shortness of breath, as excess fluid makesexpanding the lungs difficult. If severe breathing difficulties persist, patients may experience a blue colored complexion (cyanosis).

Additional symptoms of pleurisy are specific to the illness that triggers thecondition. Thus, if infection is the cause, then chills, fever, and fatiguewill be likely pleurisy symptoms.

The distinctive pain of pleurisy is normally the first clue physicians use for diagnosis. Doctors usually feel the chest to find the most painful area, which is the likely site of inflammation. A stethoscope is also used to listenfor abnormal chest sounds as the patient breathes. If the doctor hears the characteristic friction rub, the diagnosis of pleurisy can be confirmed. Sometimes, a friction rub is masked by the presence of pleural effusion and furtherexamination is needed for an accurate diagnosis.

Identifying the actual illness that causes pleurisy is more difficult. To make this diagnosis, doctors must evaluate the patient's history, additional symptoms, and laboratory test results. A chest x ray may also be taken tolook for signs of accumulated fluid and other abnormalities. Possible causes, such as pneumonia, fractured ribs, esophagus rupture, and lung tumors may be detected on an x ray. Computed tomography scan (CT scan) and ultrasound scans are more powerful diagnostic tools used to visualize the chest cavity. Images from these techniques more clearly pinpoint the location of excessfluid or other suspected problems.

The most helpful information in diagnosing the cause of pleurisy is a fluid analysis. Once the doctor knows the precise location of fluid accumulation, asample is removed using a procedure called thoracentesis. In this technique,a fine needle is inserted into the chest to reach the pleural space and extract fluid. The fluid's appearance and composition is thoroughly examined to help doctors understand how the fluid was produced. Several laboratory tests are performed to analyze the chemical components of the fluid. These tests alsodetermine whether infection-causing bacteria or viruses are present. In addition, cells within the fluid are identified and counted. Cancerous cells canalso be detected to learn whether the pleurisy is caused by a malignancy.

In certain instances, such as dry pleurisy, or when a fluid analysis is not informative, a biopsy of the pleura may be needed for microscopic analysis. Asample of pleural tissue can be obtained several ways: with a biopsy needle,by making a small incision in the chest wall, or by using a thoracoscope (a video-assisted instrument for viewing the pleural space and collecting samples).

The pain of pleurisy is usually treated with analgesic and anti-inflammatorydrugs, such as acetaminophen, ibuprofen, and indomethacin. People suffering from pleurisy may also receive relief from lying on the painful side. Sometimes, a painful cough will be controlled with codeine-based cough syrups. However, as the pain eases, a person with pleurisy should try to breathe deeply andcough to clear any congestion, otherwise pneumonia may occur. Rest is also important to aid in the recovery process.

The treatment used to cure pleurisy is ultimately defined by the underlying cause. Thus, pleurisy from a bacterial infection can be successfully treated with antibiotics, while no treatment is given for viral infections that must run their course. Specific therapies designed for more chronic illnesses can often cause pleurisy to subside. For example, tuberculosis pleurisy is treatedwith standard anti-tuberculosis drugs. With some illnesses, excess fluid continues to accumulate and causes severe respiratory distress. In these individuals, the fluid may be removed by thoracentesis, or the doctor may insert a chest tube to drain large amounts. If left untreated, a more serious infectionmay develop within the fluid, called empyema.

Alternative treatments can be used in conjunction with conventional treatmentto help heal pleurisy. Acupuncture and botanical medicines are alternative approaches for alleviating pleural pain and breathing problems. An herbal remedy commonly recommended is pleurisy root (Asclepias tuberosa), so named because of its use by early American settlers who learned of this medicinalplant from Native Americans. Pleurisy root helps to ease pain, inflammation,and breathing difficulties brought on by pleurisy. This herb is often used in conjunction with mullein (Verbascum thapsus) or elecampane (Inulahelenium), which serve as expectorants to clear excess mucus from the lungs. In addition, there are many other respiratory herbs that are used as expectorants or for other actions on the respiratory system. Herbs thought to combat infection, such as echinacea (Echinacea spp.) are also includedin herbal pleurisy remedies. Anitviral herbs, such as Lomatium dissectum and Ligusticum porteri, can be used if the pleurisy is of viral origin. Traditional Chinese medicine uses the herb ephedra (Ephedra sinica), which acts to open air passages and alleviate respiratory difficulties inpleurisy patients. Dietary recommendations include eating fresh fruits and vegetables, adequate protein, and good quality fats (omega-3 fatty acids are anti-inflammatory and are found in fish and flax oil). Taking certain nutritional supplements, especially large doeses of vitamin C, may also provide health benefits to people with pleurisy. Contrast hydrotherapy applied to the chest and back, along with compresses (cloths soaked in an herbal solution) or poultices (crushed herbs applied directly to the skin) of respiratory herbs, can assist in the healing process. Homeopathic treatment, guided by a trained practitioner, can be effective in resolving pleurisy.

Preventing pleurisy is often a matter of providing early medical attention toconditions that can cause pleural inflammation. Along this line, appropriateantibiotic treatment of bacterial respiratory infections may successfully prevent some cases of pleurisy. Maintaining a healthy lifestyle and avoiding exposure to harmful substances (for example, asbestos) are more general preventive measures.

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