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 Table of Contents  
Year : 2016  |  Volume : 6  |  Issue : 2  |  Page : 93-95

Needle decompression in a patient with vision-threatening orbital emphysema

1 Department of Ophthalmology, Taipei Veterans General Hospital and National Yang-Ming University, Taipei 11217, Taiwan, ROC
2 Department of Ophthalmology, Koo Foundation Sun Yat-Sen Cancer Center, Taipei 112, Taiwan, ROC

Date of Web Publication14-May-2016

Correspondence Address:
Chieh-Chih Tsai
Department of Ophthalmology, Taipei Veterans General Hospital, Number 201, Section 2, Shih-Pai Road, Taipei 11217, Taiwan
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Source of Support: None, Conflict of Interest: None

DOI: 10.1016/j.tjo.2015.02.003

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Orbital emphysema is a condition resulting from trapping of air in loose subcutaneous or orbital tissues from the paranasal sinuses. This condition commonly seen in patients with a history of periorbital trauma or surgery, especially following sneezing or nose blowing. It usually has a benign and self-limited course. However, the entrapped orbital air can cause a substantial increase in pressure with restricted ocular motility or vascular compromise and become severe enough to cause visual impairment. We herein present the case of a patient who developed severe orbital emphysema after blunt trauma followed by sneezing and was successfully treated with needle decompression of intraorbital air. Emergency needle decompression resulted in an improvement in vision and intraocular pressure.

Keywords: needle decompression, orbital emphysema, trauma

How to cite this article:
Lin CY, Tsai CC, Kao SC, Kau HC, Lee FL. Needle decompression in a patient with vision-threatening orbital emphysema. Taiwan J Ophthalmol 2016;6:93-5

How to cite this URL:
Lin CY, Tsai CC, Kao SC, Kau HC, Lee FL. Needle decompression in a patient with vision-threatening orbital emphysema. Taiwan J Ophthalmol [serial online] 2016 [cited 2022 Nov 29];6:93-5. Available from: https://www.e-tjo.org/text.asp?2016/6/2/93/204297

  1. Introduction Top

Orbital emphysema may develop in cases with a history of peri-orbital trauma or surgery, especially following sneezing or nose blowing. On rare occasions, the entrapped orbital air can cause a substantial rise in pressure with restricted ocular motility or vascular compromise and become severe enough to cause visual impairment.[1] Herein, we present the case of a patient who developed severe orbital emphysema after blunt trauma followed by sneezing and was treated successfully with needle decompression. The use of needle decompression technique in orbital emphysema was also discussed.

  2. Case report Top

A 68-year-old man was referred to our department with complaints of swelling, pain, and blurred vision in the left eye after sneezing. He had experienced blunt trauma to the left periorbital region, and left lid laceration after primary repair 4 days ago. On examination, he had complete left ptosis and periorbital swelling with crepitus on palpation of subcutaneous tissue. There was 5 mm of proptosis in the left eye compared with the right eye. Eye movement in all directions was limited and painful [Figure 1]. The best-corrected visual acuity was 6/7.5 in the right eye and 6/15 in the left eye. Intraocular pressure (IOP) was 19 mmHg in the right eye and 29 mmHg in the left eye. Other ophthalmic examination results were unremarkable. Orbital computed tomography (CT) revealed left subcutaneous and orbital emphysema with a large amount of air in the superior and inferior orbit extending to the retrobulbar region between the inferior rectus muscle and the optic nerve, and fracture of adjacent lamina papyracea [Figure 2]. Under topical anesthesia (EMLA cream, lidocaine/prilocaine) of the left lower eyelid, eyeball protector was applied and a 19-gauge needle attached to a 10-cm[3] syringe (Perfect Medical Industry CO., LTD, Ho Chi Minh city, Vietnam) filled with some normal saline was introduced trans-cutaneously into the inferior orbit at the junction of the middle and lateral thirds of the inferior orbital margin. The plunger was forced back spontaneously as the air pocket was entered with aid of an assistant by squeezing the lesion. Finally, a total of 6 mL of air was aspirated [Figure 3]. The patient reported immediate improvement of ptosis and periorbital swelling, and the ductions of the eye returned to normal [Figure 4]. The IOP dropped to 18 mmHg. One week later, the patient’s visual acuity had improved to 6/6.
Figure 1: The patient presents with left periocular ecchymosis and conjunctiva ecchymosis with an inability to close the lids and restricted extraocular movements in all directions.

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Figure 2: Computed tomography reveals left subcutaneous and orbital emphysema and fracture of adjacent lamina papyracea.

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Figure 3: A total of 6 mL of air is aspirated. Using saline could help to identify the air going into the syringe easily.

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Figure 4: The patient reports immediate improvement of ptosis and periorbital swelling, and the ductions of the eye returned to normal after needle decompression.

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  3. Discussion Top

Orbital emphysema in most cases is generally the result of a complication of orbital fractures that have a paranasal sinus communication, especially the ethmoid sinus. Predisposing factors include sneezing and nose blowing, which force nasal air into the intraorbital soft tissues through the defect between the sinus and the orbit,[2] as in this case. Orbital emphysema is often a benign and self-limited condition lasting for a few days or weeks. However, patients must be followed closely for potential complications. In rare cases, the orbital soft tissues may block the bony defect and produce a one-way check valve, allowing air to enter, but not leave, the orbit, causing acute onset of elevated orbital tension. The increased orbital pressure could result in proptosis and impaired ocular movement, or even lead to acute compartment syndrome and become severe enough to cause visual loss. Vision-threatening orbital emphysema often requires rapid surgical decompression, such as lateral canthotomy or cantholysis, needle decompression, and open decompression.

Needle decompression has been reported to be a simple, rapid, and effective technique for orbital emphysema.[2],[3],[4],[5],[6],[7] Although it is a relative safe and minimally invasive procedure for most ophthal-mologic surgeons, potential complications such as retrobulbar hemorrhage, eyeball perforation, and optic nerve damage may arise. In combination with previous reports and our experience, we modified this procedure to maximize its effect and increase its safety. First, the direction of needle injection is according to the largest entrapped air pocket demonstrated on the CT scan. Although the total volume of entrapped air is often hard to be calculated and aspirated completely, the globe tension and signs of orbital congestion usually could resolve immediately after the largest air pocket in the orbit has been aspirated. Second, using a blunt-tipped Atkinson needle and eyeball protector, if available, and always keeping the needle along the orbital wall and away from the globe and optic nerve may help to reduce the risk of complications. Third, needle decompression could be performed either with an empty syringe or with a syringe filled with saline.[5],[6] The saline in the syringe can help to identify the air going into the syringe easily.

In conclusion, we presented a case of orbital medial wall fracture complicated with vision-threatening orbital emphysema after sneezing and relieved by needle decompression. Needle decompression provides a treatment option for patients with orbital emphysema associated with the presence of proptosis, elevated IOP, and progressive loss of vision due to vascular compromise or stretching of the optic nerve.


This study was partially supported by a grant (Grant No. V103-C-194) from Taipei Veterans General Hospital, Taipei, Taiwan.

Conflict of interest: No proprietary interest is held by any of the authors.

  References Top

Jordan DR, White Jr GL, Anderson RL, Thiese SM. Orbital emphysema: a potentially blinding complication following orbital fractures. Ann EmergMed. 1988;17: 853-855.  Back to cited text no. 1
Singh M, Phua VM, Sundar G. Sight-threatening orbital emphysema treated with needle decompression. Clin Experiment Ophthalmol. 2007;35:386–38 .  Back to cited text no. 2
Lee SL, Mills DM, Meyer DR, Silver SM. Orbital emphysema. Ophthalmology. 2006;113:2113.e1-2113.e2.  Back to cited text no. 3
Bastion ML, Wong YC. A case of sneezing-related orbital emphysema treated by aspiration-decompression in the office. Ophthal Plast Reconstr Surg. 2006;26: 500-501.  Back to cited text no. 4
Dobler AA, Nathenson AL, Cameron JD, Carpel ET, Janda AM, Pederson JE. A case of orbital emphysema as an ocular emergency. Retina. 1993;13:166–168.  Back to cited text no. 5
Benharbit M, Karim A, Lazreq M, Mohcine Z Emergency treatment of post-traumatic orbital emphysema: a case report. J Fr Ophtalmol. 2003;26:957–959.  Back to cited text no. 6
Hunts JH, Patrinely JR, Holds JB, Anderson RL. Orbital emphysema. Staging and acute management. Ophthalmology. 1994;101:960–966.  Back to cited text no. 7


  [Figure 1], [Figure 2], [Figure 3], [Figure 4]

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