Cervical emphysema is a type of subcutaneous emphysema. It is a rare condition where air becomes trapped under the skin surrounding the vertebrae of the neck.

Cervical emphysema can arise if air leaks from the lungs, throat, or chest and travels into the tissues of the neck. It can lead to symptoms such as changes to the skin and, more seriously, trouble breathing or swallowing.

Possible causes of cervical emphysema include neck or chest trauma from car accidents or falls and certain medical procedures. Additionally, whooping cough and forceful vomiting may lead to cervical emphysema.

This article discusses cervical emphysema, including its causes, symptoms, and treatment.

a person with cervical emphysema is touching their neckShare on Pinterest
Halfpoint Images/Getty Images

Cervical emphysema is a rare condition that affects the neck. The condition is unrelated to emphysema of the lungs.

Experts estimate the incidence of subcutaneous emphysema is around 0.4% to 2.3%. It is most common in people aged 50 and over and people assigned male at birth.

Some symptoms include:

  • pain or discomfort
  • a smooth bulging in the neck or throat
  • an unusual crackling sensation (crepitus) when pressure is applied to the area
  • bloating of the abdomen, chest, neck, or face

People may experience complications that may necessitate urgent medical care. Possible complications may include:

  • infection
  • trouble swallowing
  • airway compression
  • airway closure

Learn more about subcutaneous emphysema here.

Often, people develop cervical emphysema after certain medical procedures, specifically ones that involve inserting a tube into the body and allowing air to enter the tissues.

Some examples of these procedures include:

  • Endoscopy: A thin tube is inserted through the mouth and down the esophagus to examine the digestive system.
  • Central venous line: A fine tube is placed into a vein close to the heart.
  • Endotracheal intubation: A tube is placed down the throat to help a person breathe.
  • Bronchoscopy: A thin tube is inserted into the lungs to examine them.
  • Laparoscopy: This is a type of keyhole surgery that involves making small incisions in the abdomen and inserting instruments to perform the procedure.

Almost 8 in 10 people who undergo laparoscopic procedures develop subcutaneous emphysema, although doctors cannot always detect it.

Cervical emphysema may also result from:

  • neck, chest, or abdominal injuries, such as from car accidents, sports, or trauma in general
  • forceful vomiting
  • whooping cough (pertussis)
  • necrotizing deep tissue infections, such as gas gangrene
  • arthroscopic shoulder surgery
  • cesarean delivery

There have been some reports of cervical emphysema following dental procedures, such as tooth extractions. Dental instruments that apply high pressure air or water to the area are likely the cause.

Doctors first attempt to find and address the underlying cause.

Milder cases of cervical emphysema that do not cause distress may not require treatment and can resolve independently. However, doctors still monitor the person, checking for signs of complications or their condition worsening.

If a person has more severe cervical emphysema, doctors may need to release the pressure by making small incisions or suctioning the trapped air. In some cases, surgery is necessary.

Surgery can involve repairing any damage to the area that can allow air to enter the tissues, or the placement of a chest tube to drain air and fluids from the chest cavity.

Doctors can also prescribe antibiotics if the person shows signs of infection.

Most cases of subcutaneous emphysema typically resolve in fewer than 10 days once doctors identify and control the underlying cause.

A person’s outlook depends on the cause of their subcutaneous emphysema. Significant trauma, severe infections, and other health issues can increase the risk of complications and impact how quickly and easily a person recovers.

Is cervical emphysema life threatening?

If someone has recently experienced trauma or undergone surgery and develops cervical emphysema, they should seek urgent medical attention.

Although it is typically not life threatening, cervical emphysema can cause complications, and doctors should monitor it closely.

Cervical emphysema is a rare condition in which air enters the tissues under the skin of the neck or throat. It is also called subcutaneous emphysema of the neck.

Common causes include trauma and medical procedures, such as endoscopy and laparoscopy.

Symptoms include a smooth bulging in the neck, an unusual crackling sensation under the skin, bloating, and breathing issues. It can also cause pain or discomfort.

Treatment usually involves managing the underlying cause, making small incisions to reduce pressure, or placing a chest tube to drain air and fluids from the chest cavity.

While cervical emphysema is not typically life threatening, people should seek immediate medical attention if they develop symptoms.