Subcutaneous / Surgical Emphysema
Useful Articles:

CMA J 1977.  Subcutaneous Emphysema during Dental Treatment

J Laryngology & Otology 1999.  Surgical Emphysema following Dental Treatment

JABFP 2003.  Brief Reports.  Pneumothorax During Dental Care

Emergency Medicine Australasia 2004.  Case Report.  Extensive Surgical
Emphysema Following Restorative Dental Treatment

Arch Dermatol 2005.  Soft Tissue Cervicofacial Emphysema After Dental
Treatment.  Report of 2 Cases With Emphasis on the Differential Diagnosis of

Med Oral Patol Oral Cir Bucal 2007.  Subcutaneous Emphysema Secondary to
Dental Treatment.  A Case Report

Int J Odontostomat 2009.  Subcutaneous Emphysema after Ultrasonic Treatment.  
A Case Report

Postgrad Med J 2009.  Rare Complications of Surgical Emphysema &
Pneumomediastinum Occurring Post-Dental Extraction

J Oral Maxillofac Surg 2009.  Iatrogenic Subcutaneous Emphysema of Dental and
Surgical Origin.  A Literature Review

J Oral Maxillofac Surg 2010.  Cervicofacial Subcutaneous Emphysema.  Case
Report & Review of Literature

Ann Thorac Surg 2010.  Iatrogenic Pneumomediastinum & Facial Emphysema After
Surgical Tooth Extraction

Braz Dent J 2011. Subcutaneous Emphysema During 3rd Molar Surgery.  A Case

J Clin Exp Dent 2011.  Subcutaneous Emphysema resulting from Surgical
Extraction without Elevation of a Mucoperiosteal Skin Flap
Last Updated 7th September 2012

Sub-cutaneous emphysema can be defined as the collection of air (or another gas)
below the
sub-cutaneous tissues (in this case of the head and the neck).

Sub-cutaneous emphysema due to dental procedures is uncommon.

How it happens:

In the dental setting, it usually occurs when high speed dental hand-pieces are
being used and the dental bur lacerates the adjacent

These hand-pieces are air-turbine driven and expel high pressure air downwards
towards the cutting surface of the bur.  Once a breach in the
mucosa is made, air
under pressure is able to track

This can typically happen during restorative dentistry, dental implant surgery,
endodontic surgery, periodontal treatment or during tooth extraction (particularly of
the lower wisdom teeth) when air syringes, air-water– cooled high-speed dental
handpieces or spray/jet devices are used.

It can also occur in association with Head & Neck surgery, soft tissue infection,
trauma, foreign bodies or
neoplasms (cancers) of the aero-digestive (mouth, nose,
windpipe & gullet) tract, any condition leading to rupture of
bronchial alveoli with
pneumo-mediastinum (eg, asthma or pulmonary baro-trauma) or

Signs & Symptoms:

Although alarming to the patient and clinician, it is usually a benign condition that
resolves over 3 – 10 days as the air is resorbed into the blood stream for eventual
excretion via the lungs.

Sub-cutaneous / surgical emphysema is characterized by soft tissue swelling of
sudden onset, usually developing within seconds or minutes.  Palpation of the
affected tissues reveals
crepitus (crackling), an important diagnostic feature.  In
most cases, this sign is detected immediately however there are reports in which it
appears later, making diagnosis difficult.

Discomfort is a variable finding (can happen with
sub-cutaneous emphysema when
it causes tension in the involved tissues).

Most patients who develop
sub-cutaneous emphysema after a dental procedure
have only moderate local swelling.  However, spread of larger amounts of air into
deeper spaces may sometimes cause serious complications.  For example, the
bases of the lower molars directly communicate with the
sub-lingual & sub-
mandibular spaces

These spaces, in turn, communicate with the
para-pharyngeal & retro-pharyngeal
, where accumulation of air may lead to airway compromise.  The retro-
pharyngeal space
(“danger space”) is the main route of communication from the
mouth to the
mediastinum.  Once air enters the mediastinum, it can also reach the
pleural cavity, the pericardium & even the retro-peritoneum.  Consecutive cases of
pneumo-thorax & pneumo-pericardium may cause cardiac and/ or pulmonary
.  The presence of pain both in the thorax & in the back, would suggest the
presence of this type of
emphysema & a thorax X ray to confirm the diagnosis is

Cases of fatal
air embolism & optic nerve damage (by access of air to the orbits)
have also been described.  Furthermore, dissemination of oral flora micro-
organisms along the
emphysematous tracts may be responsible for soft tissue
infections (eg.
deep neck infection and mediastinitis) & sepsis.  


Provided that there is no airway compromise,
sub-cutaneous / surgical
can be treated conservatively (observation & reassurance of the
patient).  The prognosis is good.  Infection is a potential risk since the introduction
of air and not sterile water could cause serious effects to the health of the patient &
antibiotics are usually prescribed although this remains controversial.

Emergency intervention could be required in severe cases with evidence of
& dysphagia.

It is important to advise the patient that they must avoid increasing
, such as by blowing the nose vigorously or playing musical instruments
which could introduce more air.

In the vast majority of cases,
emphysema resolves within 2 - 3 days, although
residual swelling may be evident for up to 14 days.

In severe cases, immediate medical attention is mandatory.  
Tracheostomy may
become necessary in case of
retro-pharyngeal space emphysema with
consecutive airway compromise.  It has also been reported that administration of
100% oxygen via a
non rebreather mask can hasten resolution of the emphysema,
because oxygen, which replaces the air, is more readily absorbed.  Prophylactic
administration of antibiotics, preferentially
Co-Amoxiclav, is recommended to
prevent secondary infections.
Photos of Surgical-Subcutaneous Emphysema