Examination of the patient with suspected pulmonary disease includes inspection, palpation, percussion, and auscultation of the chest. An efficient approach begins with observing the pattern of breathing, auscultation of the chest, and inspection for extrapulmonary signs of pulmonary disease.
The pattern of breathing refers to the respiratory rate and rhythm, the depth of breathing or tidal volume, and the relative amount of time spent in inspiration and expiration. Normal values are a rate of 12–14 breaths per minute, tidal volumes of 5 mL/kg, and a ratio of inspiratory to expiratory time of approximately 2:3. Tachypnea is an increased rate of breathing and is commonly associated with a decrease in tidal volume. Respiratory rhythm is normally regular, with a sigh (1.5–2 times normal tidal volume) every 90 breaths or so to prevent collapse of alveoli and atelectasis. Alterations in the rhythm of breathing include rapid, shallow breathing, seen in restrictive lung disease and as a precursor to respiratory failure; Kussmaul breathing, rapid large-volume breathing indicating intense stimulation of the respiratory center, seen in metabolic acidosis; and Cheyne-Stokes respiration, a rhythmic waxing and waning of both rate and tidal volumes that includes regular periods of apnea. This last pattern is seen in patients with end-stage left ventricular failure or neurologic disease and in many normal persons at high altitude, especially during sleep.
During normal quiet breathing, the primary muscle of respiration is the diaphragm. Movement of the chest wall is minimal. The use of accessory muscles of respiration, the intercostal and sternocleidomastoid muscles, indicates high work of breathing and is a sign of significant pulmonary impairment. As the diaphragm contracts, it pushes the abdominal contents down. Hence, the chest and abdominal wall normally expand simultaneously. The chest normally expands symmetrically. Asymmetric expansion suggests unilateral volume loss, as in atelectasis or pleural effusion, unilateral airway obstruction, asymmetric pulmonary or pleural fibrosis, or splinting from chest pain.
The examiner may palpate as follows: the trachea at the suprasternal notch, to detect shifts in the mediastinum; on the posterior chest wall, to gauge fremitus and the transmission through the lungs of vibrations of spoken words; and on the anterior chest wall to assess the cardiac impulse.
Chest percussion identifies dull areas that correspond to lung consolidation or pleural effusion or hyperresonant areas suggesting emphysema or pneumothorax. Percussion has a low sensitivity (10–20% in several studies) compared with chest radiographs to detect abnormalities but high specificity (85–99%). Since an insensitive test is a poor screening examination, percussion and palpation are not necessary in every patient. These techniques do serve as important confirmatory tests in specific patients when the prior probability of a finding is increased. For example, in a patient with a suspected tension pneumothorax, the finding of tracheal shift and hyperresonance can be lifesaving, ...