What Are the Tests Used for an Emphysema Diagnosis?

Here's How Doctors Look for This Form of COPD

If your doctor has told you that you should be tested for emphysema, you may be wondering what tests are used for an emphysema diagnosis.


Emphysema is a form of chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, or COPD, that involves damage to the alveoli, or air sacs, in the lungs, making it difficult to breathe. Your doctor may suspect you have emphysema if you have a chronic cough and difficulty catching your breath. 

In order to may a diagnosis, your doctor will order a battery of tests designed to help him reach a more definitive conclusion. Here's a closer look at some of the tests for diagnosing emphysema:

History and Physical

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The presenting symptoms and findings made during a physical examination provide your doctor with the initial clues to any health problem, emphysema included.

During your office visit, your doctor will ask you a number of questions related to your history which may include questions about your smoking and your exposure to other irritants, such as secondhand smoke, workplace or environmental pollutants.

During your physical examination, your doctor will be looking for characteristic signs of emphysema such as a round, barrel chest; muscle wasting; clubbing of the nail beds and abnormal breath sounds or breathing patterns.

Chest X-Ray

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A chest x-ray is a radiographic examination of the lungs, heart, large arteries, ribs, and diaphragm. A chest x-ray can be performed in a radiology lab, doctor's office or at your bedside if you are in the hospital.

Your doctor will perform an initial chest x-ray to help him reach a diagnosis of emphysema, and then intermittently throughout your treatment to monitor your progress.

Pulmonary Function Tests

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Pulmonary function tests (PFTs) are performed to assess lung function and determine the degree of damage to the lungs.

In patients with emphysema, there may be an increase in total lung capacity but a decrease in vital capacity and forced expiratory volume.  

Total lung capacity is the total amount of air that is in the lungs after a deep breath. Vital capacity is the amount of air that can be forced out of your lungs after a deep breath. Forced expiratory volume is the amount of air that can be forced out of your lungs in the first second of a forced exhalation.

Arterial Blood Gases

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Arterial blood gases (ABGs) are performed by taking blood from an artery. This test measures the level of acidity in the blood and the amount of oxygen and carbon dioxide. 

This test helps your doctor to determine how well your lungs provide adequate oxygen to your body and how well they remove carbon dioxide.

Complete Blood Count

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The complete blood count (CBC) is a screening test done on your blood which is used to diagnose and manage a variety of different diseases, including emphysema.

A CBC is usually done during your initial physical examination then periodically to monitor your condition.

Besides being able to detect abnormalities in your blood cells, a CBC also tells your doctor if you have an infection that could be associated with emphysema.

An Emphysema Diagnosis

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The importance an early diagnosis of emphysema cannot be overemphasized. With early diagnosis comes early treatment, which can help slow the progression of the disease and lead to a higher quality of life.

If you have signs and symptoms of emphysema, it's important that you seek medical attention as soon as possible in order for a definitive diagnosis to be made.

For more information about emphysema, contact your healthcare provider.


Smeltzer, Suzanne & Bare, Brenda. "Textbook of Medical-Surgical Nursing". Eighth Edition. Lippincott Publishers. 1996.

Emphysema. NIH website. https://www.nlm.nih.gov/medlineplus/emphysema.html. Accessed February 5, 2015.

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