Diagnosing Emphysema and COPD with Medical Imaging

Emphysema is just one of several conditions under the umbrella term “chronic obstructive pulmonary disease.” COPD is a condition that causes the lungs to have difficulty taking in air. COPD includes conditions like emphysema, chronic bronchitis, refractory asthma, and some forms of bronchiectasis. Emphysema is the deadliest of the conditions and we will explore the symptoms and the diagnosis process. In Louisiana alone, more than 7% of the population is affected by COPD.
Source: COPD Foundation (PDF).

Symptoms of Emphysema and COPD

Many patients may have the disease but be unaware of it. Here’s a look at signs you may have the emphysema or COPD:

  • The earliest symptom of emphysema is shortness of breath. Even the slightest activities may tire you out.
  • Wheezing
  • A cough that won’t go away
  • Chest tightness or chest pain

How Doctors Identify Emphysema

What does emphysema look like? To begin, the interior of the lungs are filled with small air sacs called alveoli. These air sacs expand with oxygen when you breathe in and allow oxygen to get into the bloodstream. Emphysema is a condition that causes these air sacs to weaken and ultimately rupture. When they rupture, there is less area for oxygen to be taken in and since emphysema is a chronic condition, these alveoli will continue to weaken and rupture until the lungs are not able to expand and contract on their own.

Emphysema is most notably a result of cigarette or tobacco smoking. The chemicals found in cigarette smoke can total over 7,000 and they are extremely toxic to the entirety of the body, but the lungs take most of the damage. Upon inhalation, the hot smoke and toxic chemicals damage the lung tissue and with an addictive habit like cigarettes, the damage happens multiple times a day for years. With every puff, more lung tissue dies and once it is dead, there is no replacing it. In fact, about 85 to 90 percent of all COPD cases are caused by cigarette smoking in the United States.

If you are a long-term smoker or a former smoker and are over the age of 50, your chances for developing emphysema are much higher. The signs of COPD or emphysema can be confused with other conditions because things like shortness of breath or difficulty catching breath could be misconstrued as part of the aging process or the result of lifestyle choices. You see, as the air sacs are slowly destroyed, air becomes trapped in the lungs and is difficult to expel as well as obtain. Furthermore, if you are experiencing a tightness in the chest that does not seem to pass, these could be the beginning warning signs of COPD and possibly emphysema.

Diagnosing emphysema requires a few different tests. To begin, the doctor will use a physical examination to test things like your vitals and blood pressure. Following a physical, doctors will usually perform a combination of pulmonary function tests to examine the strength and performance of the lungs. Pulmonary function tests include breathing into tubes that can test how much air you are expelling, how fast it is being expelled, and how much air remains after exhalation.

Chest X-Rays and CT Scans

If the results of the pulmonary function test prove conclusive toward symptoms of COPD, doctors will use medical imaging to confirm the diagnosis. A chest x-ray is often performed to see if the lungs have become enlarged because of excess air or if there are structural changes in the lungs. However, diagnosing emphysema cannot be done with a chest x-ray alone. Chest CT scans are also used to diagnose COPD because they can show pockets of air in the lungs which are symptomatic of damage from COPD. All of these procedures are completely painless and require no invasive surgery and yet still provide accurate details and diagnosis.

At Doctors Imaging, we assist doctors in the diagnosis, treatment, and aftercare of sick or injured patients. Our staff offers state of the art medical technology along with decades of professional experience. We have been facing the concerning statistics of lung cancer and lung-related ailments in Louisiana for many years. But we know the importance of lung cancer screenings. We even offer a $99 lung cancer screening for long-time smokers and ex-smokers. Lung cancer screenings are available to each patient annually.

Want to learn more? Find out what to expect during a CT Scan. Ready to make an appointment? You can Request an Appointment online or call Doctors Imaging’s office in Metairie at 504-833-8111 Monday through Friday to speak to a representative.