The recent interest in the use of ultrasound (US) to detect pneumothoraces after acute trauma in North America was initially driven by an operational space medicine concern. Astronauts aboard the International Space Station (ISS) are at risk for pneumothoraces, and US is the only potential medical imaging available. Pneumothoraces are common following trauma, and are a preventable cause of death, as most are treatable with relatively simple interventions. While pneumothoraces are optimally diagnosed clinically, they are more often inapparent even on supine chest radiographs (CXR) with recent series reporting a greater than 50% rate of occult pneumothoraces. In the course of basic scientific investigations in a conventional and parabolic flight laboratory, investigators familiarized themselves with the sonographic features of both pneumothoraces and normal pulmonary ventilation. By examining the visceral-parietal pleural interface (VPPI) with US, investigators became confident in diagnosing pneumothoraces. This knowledge was subsequently translated into practice at an American and a Canadian trauma center. The sonographic examination was found to be more accurate and sensitive than CXR (US 96% and 100% versus US 74% and 36%) in specific circumstances. Initial studies have also suggested that detecting the US features of pleural pulmonary ventilation in the left lung field may offer the ability to exclude serious endotracheal tube malpositions such as right mainstem and esophageal intubations. Applied thoracic US is an example of a clinically useful space medicine spin-off that is improving health care on earth.
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