What Is a Paralyzed Diaphragm?

Your diaphragm is a thin muscle that separates your chest and abdomen. When you inhale, your diaphragm tightens and expands your chest cavity. A paralyzed diaphragm doesn’t tighten as it should when you breathe in. Instead, it relaxes and decreases the size of your chest cavity.

Why Choose University of Utah Health?

We are a national referral center that routinely performs operations to treat paralyzed diaphragms. These procedures aren't commonly performed at all centers nationwide. At U of U Health, patients have access to the only specialists offering robotic surgery for a paralyzed diaphragm in the Mountain West region.

Our thoracic surgeons are all credentialed in robotic surgery technology and are national experts in robotic thoracic surgery. We are a multidisciplinary team that includes the expertise of cardiothoracic surgeons, pulmonologists, general surgeons, neurosurgeons, neurologists, and sleep specialists.

Paralyzed Diaphragm Symptoms

Most people don’t have any symptoms of a paralyzed diaphragm.

Your diaphragm has two halves, and most people only have paralysis in one half of their diaphragm. You typically won’t notice any changes in your breathing or other functions because the other half will compensate for the injured portion. Most people find out they have a paralyzed diaphragm when they have imaging tests for other conditions and the imaging shows a paralyzed diaphragm.

Rarely, a paralyzed diaphragm may cause:

  • chest pain while breathing;
  • shortness of breath; or
  • sleep disturbances, such as waking up short of breath.

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Paralyzed Diaphragm Causes

Most of the time, thoracic specialists never find the root cause of a paralyzed diaphragm.

A paralyzed diaphragm sometimes occurs because of damage to your phrenic nerve (the nerve that runs through your cervical spine, neck, heart, and lungs and controls the two halves of your diaphragm). Phrenic nerve injuries are often traumatic injuries from a car accident or sports injury.

Paralyzed Diaphragm Diagnosis

Diagnosing a paralyzed diaphragm starts with describing all your symptoms and health history to your provider. Your provider may use a stethoscope to listen to your breathing. If you have a paralyzed diaphragm, your breaths may be less audible on one side of your chest.

You may also have tests such as:

  • chest CT scans,
  • chest X-rays,
  • nerve conduction tests, or
  • pulmonary function tests.

Sniff Test for Diaphragmatic Paralysis

A sniff test uses fluoroscopy, a type of imaging that uses continuous X-rays, much like a live X-ray or an X-ray movie. During the test, you will inhale rapidly through your nose (sniff), and your provider will watch your diaphragm’s movements. If you have a paralyzed diaphragm, it will move upward instead of downward during a sniff.

Paralyzed Diaphragm Treatment

Your treatment plan will depend on whether you have symptoms of a paralyzed diaphragm. Some people don’t need any treatment if they have few to no symptoms.

CPAP for Diaphragm Paralysis

A continuous positive airway pressure (CPAP) machine may help relieve mild symptoms of a paralyzed diaphragm. You may wear a CPAP machine while you sleep to help you take deeper inhales.

Paralyzed Diaphragm Surgery

Some patients benefit from a diaphragm plication. In this procedure, a cardiothoracic surgeon tightens the diaphragm so that it always remains in its contracted position. This allows your chest to expand as it should so that you can inhale properly.

Can You Live with a Paralyzed Diaphragm?

You can live with a paralyzed diaphragm. Many patients don’t have any symptoms and never need treatment.

Can a Paralyzed Diaphragm Be Repaired?

If you have a paralyzed diaphragm, treatment won’t restore your diaphragm’s usual function. But a diaphragm plication can hold your diaphragm in place so that your chest can expand properly when you inhale. 

How to Schedule an Evaluation with Our Cardiothoracic Specialists

To make an appointment with our cardiothoracic team, call 801-585-6740. We encourage you to get a referral from your primary care provider, but we accept self-referrals.

To refer a patient for cardiothoracic surgery, complete our referral form or call 801-585-6740.