>PoCUS – Pleural Effusion

Medical Student Clinical Pearl

James Kiberd

Class 2019 Dalhousie Medicine

Reviewed and Edited by Dr. David Lewis


A 90 year-old male presented with worsening shortness of breath on exertion, crackles bilaterally at the bases on auscultation with known history of congestive heart failure. Bedside ultrasound was performed to assess for pleural effusion

Lung Views:

In order to perform ultrasound of the lungs, there are four views that are obtained (see Figure 1). Place the patient supine. The high frequency linear array transducer is often used, but either the phased array or curvilinear transducers can be used. The first views are taken at both right and left mid-clavicular lines of the anterior chest. With the marker of the transducer pointed toward the patient’s head, a minimum of 3-4 rib spaces should be identified. The next views are of the posterior-lateral chest. The patient can be supine or in the sitting position. It is these views where a pleural effusion can be identified.

Figure 1: Chest views with ultrasound. ‘A’ are anterior chest view positions and ‘B’ are posterolateral view positions

Pleural Effusion

Pleural effusion is assessed by ultrasound placing the transducer in the midaxillary line with the marker oriented toward the patient’s head. On the patient’s right side the diaphragm, the liver, and the vertebral line can be seen. On the left, the diaphragm, spleen, and vertebral line should be in view. In a patient without pleural effusion, one should not be able to visualize the lung as it is mostly air and scatters the sound produced by the transducer. However, in the presence of pleural effusion, the area above the diaphragm is filled with fluid and therefore will appear anechoic. In addition, the vertebral line will be present past the diaphragm as the fluid allows the sound waves to propagate and not scatter. This is known as the ‘spine sign’ (also known as the ‘V-line’). Finally, one is often able to see the atelectatic lung float and move with respirations in the fluid, this is known as the ‘sinusoid sign.’ These are the three criteria outlined by consensus statements in the identification of pleural effusions.1 Occasionally, the area above the diaphragm may look like spleen or liver, but this is known as ‘mirror image’ artifact and is normal.2 Figure 2 shows both the right and left views of our patient.

Figure 2: Pleural effusion showing anechoic pleural fluid, atelectatic lung, and ‘spine sign

Accuracy with Ultrasound

Ultrasound is more accurate than either chest x-ray or physical exam in the identification of small pleural effusions.3 For a chest x-ray to identify fluid there usually needs to be more than 200cc present.2 A meta-analysis found that ultrasound had a mean sensitivity of 93% (95%CI: 89-96%) and specificity of 96% (95%CI: 95-98%).4


Our patient went on to have a chest x-ray where he was found to have bilateral pleural effusions (see Figure 3).

Figure 3: Bilateral pleural effusions seen on chest radiography in our patient.

In Summary

Three criteria are used to identify pleural effusion on ultrasound; anechoic fluid above the diaphragm, the ability to visualize the spine above the diaphragm (‘spine sign’), and atelectatic lung moving with respirations (‘sinusoid sign’). Lung ultrasound for the detection of pleural effusion is more reliable to identify small effusions in comparison to both radiography and physical exam.


  1. Volpicelli G, Elbarbary M, Blaivas M, et al. International evidence-based recommendations for point-of-care lung ultrasound. Intensive Care Med. 2012;38(4):577-591. doi:10.1007/s00134-012-2513-4.
  2. Liu RB, Donroe JH, McNamara RL, Forman HP, Moore CL. The practice and implications of finding fluid during point-of-care ultrasonography: A review. JAMA Intern Med. 2017;177(12):1818-1825. doi:10.1001/jamainternmed.2017.5048.
  3. Wong CL, Holroyd-leduc J, Straus SE. CLINICIAN ’ S CORNER Does This Patient Have a Pleural Effusion ? PATIENT SCENARIO. Jama. 2010;301(3):309-317. doi:10.1001/jama.2008.937.
  4. Grimberg AI, Carlos Shigueoka DI, Nagib Atallah III Á, et al. Diagnostic accuracy of sonography for pleural effusion: systematic review Acurácia diagnóstica da ultrassonografia nos derrames pleurais: revisão sistemática
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