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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 an existing 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, which surrounds the lungs, and an outer membrane, which lines the chest cavity. The pleural membranes are very thin, close together, and have a fluid coating in the narrow space between them. This liquid acts as a lubricant, so that when the 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 also initiate pleurisy.These disturbances all act to displace the normal pleural fluid, 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 fluid within 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.


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 listen for 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 further examination 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 to look 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.

The most helpful information in diagnosing the cause of pleurisy is a fluid analysis. Once the doctor knows the precise location of fluid accumulation, a sample 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 also determine whether infection-causing bacteria or viruses are present. In addition, cells within the fluid are identified and counted. Cancerous cells can also 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. A sample 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).


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    Alternative treatments can be used in conjunction with conventional treatment to 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 medicinal plant 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 ( Inula helenium ), 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 included in 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 in pleurisy 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.


    Prompt diagnosis, followed by appropriate treatment, ensures a good recovery for most pleurisy patients. Generally speaking, the prognosis for pleurisy is linked to the seriousness of its cause. Therefore, the outcome of pleurisy caused by a disease such as cancer will vary depending on the type and location of the tumor.


    Preventing pleurisy is often a matter of providing early medical attention to conditions that can cause pleural inflammation. Along this line, appropriate antibiotic 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 preventative measures.


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