The diaphragm is a muscle that separates the chest and abdominal cavities; it is controlled by the phrenic nerves.
Diaphragmatic paralysis is uncommon. In patients where one side of the diaphragm is paralyzed, people usually have no symptoms unless they have another reason for shortness of breath (asthma, emphysema, etc.). Because a paralyzed diaphragm is higher than usual, it compresses the lung and prevents the patient from taking a normal breath. Also, when a patient breaths, the diaphragm usually moves down to pull air in to the lung. Paradoxically, a paralyzed diaphragm moves up and further compresses the lung
Symptoms of Diaphragmatic Paralysis
Shortness of breath
Orthopnea (shortness of breath worse lying down and better sitting up)
Causes and Risk Factors for Diaphragmatic Paralysis
There are many situations where the phrenic nerve does not work because it was invaded, compressed, cut, including:
Surgical trauma, such as unintentional injury after a heart or neck procedure
In newborns and infants, birth trauma
Neurological diseases, such as ALS, multiple sclerosis, muscular dystrophy, Guillain-Barre syndrome
Spinal cord disorders and quadriplegia
Chest Surgery where the phrenic nerve is cut or removed to remove a tumor
Chronic pneumonia, bronchitis or cardiac arrhythmias
Thyroid and autoimmune disease
Diagnosis of Diaphragmatic Paralysis
Pulmonary function testing while lying down and again while upright.
Lung capacity is often reduced about 10 percent when a person is lying down
Patients with bilateral diaphragmatic paralysis may experience a 70 to 80 percent reduction in lung capacity while patients with unilateral diaphragmatic paralysis may experience a 50 percent reduction
FEV 1 = 60-70% of normal
Total Lung Capacity: 60-70% of normal
Chest X-rays (see figure): the diaphragm is higher than usual and compresses the lung or an upright, inspiratory chest radiograph
Sniff Test: With fluoroscopy, the radiologist watches he diaphragm as the patient sniffs. A normal lung moves down and the lung expands. A paralyzed lung moves up to compress the lung.
Phrenic nerve stimulation testing shows the nerve does not work
Computed tomography (CT) scanning of the thorax shows the diaphragm is high and is done to make sure there is no tumor on the phrenic nerve
Magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) to determine if there is an underlying condition involving the spinal column or nerve roots
Treating Diaphragmatic Paralysis
Treatment begins with an evaluation of the overall health of the patient, how much the shortness of breath impacts the patient’s life, and any underlying cause for the paralysis. This is an elective operation so the symptoms need to be bad enough to justify the operation.
Prognosis for Diaphragmatic Paralysis
The prognosis for unilateral paralysis is quite good, providing there is no underlying pulmonary disease. Sometimes, patients recover without any medical intervention.
The prognosis for bilateral paralysis also depends on the overall health of the patient but surgery may be the best option for patients who continue to have a poor quality of life.