Chest Inspection, Palpation, and Percussion

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Chapter 13 Chest Inspection, Palpation, and Percussion


Chest inspection, palpation, and percussion are the foundations of physical exam. Percussion is 15 years older than the United States, the brainchild of an Austrian innkeeper’s son who figured out that patients’ chests could behave like barrels of wine. Although rather “ancient,” these maneuvers retain considerable value. Their skilled use may in fact still provide key pieces to our diagnostic mosaic. Indeed, bedside diagnosis of lung diseases requires all these maneuvers to yield useful information.

A. Chest Inspection

21 Who was Kussmaul?

Adolf Kussmaul (1822–1902) was a graduate of Heidelberg and Würzburg (where he studied under Virchow) and a part-time German Army surgeon. He was the first to describe periarteritis nodosa and progressive bulbar paralysis. He also was the first to attempt gastroesophagoscopy, pleural tapping, and peritoneal lavage. His name is linked to the respiration of patients with metabolic acidosis, the clinical description of pericarditis, pulsus paradoxus, aphasia, and, of course, Kussmaul’s sign, the inspiratory increase in jugular venous pressure (and distention) seen in patients with obstruction to right-sided venous return (see Chapter 10, questions 115–118). A meticulous and precise man famous for complaining that none of his colleagues could write good German, Kussmaul contributed satirical poems to a weekly magazine under the pseudonym of Gottlieb Biedermeier, an imaginary and unsophisticated poet who eventually came to symbolize the values and tastes of the early 19th-century German bourgeois: reliable, hard-working, but boringly unimaginative (like in the Biedermeier style of furniture. “Bieder” is German for “everyday, plain” while “Meier,” or Meyer, is a common German last name).

Abnormalities in Rhythm and Pattern of Respiration

23 What are the main abnormalities in respiratory rhythm?

They are many, and usually the result of disruption in the neurogenic control of the respiratory pump. Hence, they are often seen in comatose patients. Thus, they are valuable to recognize because they may help localizing the site of the neurologic lesion (see Fig. 13-2). Moving downward in a rostrocaudal fashion, from the uppermost to the lowermost neurologic center, the most common abnormalities of respiratory rhythm are (1) Cheyne-Stokes respiration, (2) Biot’s respiration, (3) apneustic breathing, (4) central hyperventilation, and (5) ataxic (agonal) respiration.

28 Who were Cheyne and Stokes?

John Cheyne (1777–1836) was a Scot and himself the son of a surgeon, often helping his father to care for patients by bleeding and dressing them. After graduating at age 18 from the University of Edinburgh, he served in the army for 4 years. During this time, he took part in the battle of Vinegar Hill, which broke Irish resistance to British rule. In 1809, he went to Dublin, where he was eventually appointed Physician-in-General for Ireland, becoming the founder of modern Irish medicine.

William Stokes (1804–1878) was instead a bona-fide Irishman and the son of the anatomy professor who had succeeded John Cheyne at the College of Surgeons School in Ireland. Although lacking in formal education (his father wanted to protect him from a society that did not abide by the scriptures), Stokes eventually went to Edinburgh, where he received his doctor of medicine in 1825. In Scotland, he learned of Laënnec and his recent invention, the “cylinder.” He soon became so enamored of this little tool that he even wrote an introductory book about it, the first of its kind in the English language. In fact, Stokes was such a vocal advocate for the use of stethoscopy that he provoked quite a few reactions (and even some sarcasm) among his colleagues. Still, he was a well-liked physician, who worked among the poor during the Dublin typhus epidemic in 1826 (he even contracted the disease but survived) and then again during the subsequent cholera epidemic. His name is linked not only to the eponymous pattern of respiration but also to Stokes-Adams syncope, which the Irish surgeon Robert Adams had described in 1827 and which Stokes included in his 1854 book, Diseases of the Heart and Aorta. Of course, the Italian Morgagni had preceded them both by describing the condition almost 100 years before (see Chapter 11, question 14).

31 What is the clinical significance of a grunting respiration?

Very much the same as in Laënnec’s days. It can still be heard in adults with respiratory muscle fatigue (and impending arrest), but nowadays it is much more frequent in children, where it usually presents as a short and low-pitched noise produced by forced expiration against a closed glottis. The “grunt” is due to the sudden opening of the glottis and the loud rush of air from the larynx. Its physiology (and significance) is akin to pursed-lip respiration (see below, questions 32 and 33), insofar as it leads to an increase in expiratory airway pressure, which then acts as a mechanical splint against alveolar collapse, increasing tidal volume and oxygenation while decreasing respiratory rate and CO2. An increased intra-alveolar pressure also has a positive effect against transudation of fluid in patients with pulmonary edema, and thus it is often observed during acute episodes of left ventricular failure.

32 What is pursed-lip respiration?

Another respiratory pattern, typically seen in obstructive lung disease—usually emphysema (Fig. 13-3). Given the alveolar hyperinflation (and reduced lung elasticity) of COPD, patients are at risk for expiratory airway closure and air-trapping. Hence, they resort to pursed lip exhalation, as if they were inflating a balloon. This increases intra-airway pressure, thus inducing auto-PEEP (positive end-expiratory pressure). It is often accompanied by an expiratory wheeze or grunt.

65 What abnormalities may be seen on the sagittal plane?

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