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A buffalo pneumothorax (or buffalo chest) refers to the rare occurrence of bilateral pneumothoraces caused by an abnormal physical communication between the two pleural spaces. The pleuropleural communication is postulated to be in the anterior median chest where there is a loss of the normal anatomical separation of the two pleural spaces at the anterior junctional line.
The presence of separate right and left pneumothoraces simultaneously is an extremely rare occurrence and a pleuropleural communication should be suspected.
The presentation can be worse than that of unilateral pneumothorax of the same size, including severe and sudden onset of dyspnea and pleuritic chest pain, tachycardia and hypotension. If sufficient tension pneumothorax develops, in which the patient may suffer cardiac arrest and death.
There are numerous causes which have been described in case reports 1-8:
iatrogenic (most common)
chest trauma, e.g. rib fractures
congenital due to anatomic variation: complete or fenestrated pleuropleural communication
Plain radiograph and CT
The features of buffalo chest are identical to unilateral pneumothorax except for being bilateral. Due to the bilateral nature, there may be competing mass effect in the chest resulting in minimal or even no mediastinal shift. But if the amount of air in the 'combined' pleural space is significant enough tension physiology may be present.
There may be signs which indicate a possible cause such as:
sternal wires indicating recent thoracotomy
rib fractures or other findings of chest trauma
endotracheal tube for ventilation
unilateral pleural catheter
other lines and tubes
respiratory diseases such as COPD, asthma or CF findings
Treatment and prognosis
Theoretically, the placement of a unilateral pleural catheter should decompress the bilateral pneumothoraces. Some, however, have been treated with bilateral pleural drainage.
History and etymology
Buffalo species have a single contiguous pleural cavity containing both lungs. When hunting American buffalo, Native Americans would shoot a single arrow into the chest of the beast which "would probably cause both lungs to collapse, rendering the animal incapacitated" 5.
Sheep and mules have also been reported to have similar anatomy, and some horses may have ventral pleural fenestrations.
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- 2. Ray A, Gupta M. Iatrogenic buffalo-chest syndrome. (2017) The Indian journal of radiology & imaging. 27 (2): 254-255. doi:10.4103/0971-3026.209202 - Pubmed
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- 6. Hartin DJ, Kendall R, Boyle AA, Atkinson PR. Case of the month: Buffalo chest: a case of bilateral pneumothoraces due to pleuropleural communication. (2006) Emergency medicine journal : EMJ. 23 (6): 483-6. doi:10.1136/emj.2005.030981 - Pubmed
- 7. Sawalha L, Gibbons WJ. Iatrogenic "buffalo chest" bilateral pneumothoraces following unilateral transbronchial lung biopsies in a bilateral lung transplant recipient. (2015) Respiratory medicine case reports. 15: 57-8. doi:10.1016/j.rmcr.2015.05.006 - Pubmed
- 8. Bilateral Primary Spontaneous Pneumothorax. (2009) Pediatric Emergency Care. 25 (1): 33. doi:10.1097/PEC.0b013e318191db2b - Pubmed