Restrictive Lung Diseases Overview and Practice Questions Illustration

Restrictive Lung Diseases: Overview and Practice Questions

by | Updated: May 4, 2024

Restrictive lung diseases represent a group of disorders characterized primarily by a reduction in lung volume, leading to decreased lung expansion and impaired gas exchange.

Distinct from obstructive lung diseases, which limit the outflow of air, restrictive diseases often result from conditions that make the lung tissue stiff or from external factors that prevent the lungs from expanding fully.

The etiology can be intrinsic, such as interstitial lung diseases and fibrosis, or extrinsic, such as chest wall deformities or neuromuscular disorders.

This article delves into the pathophysiology, clinical presentations, and management of these conditions.

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What is a Restrictive Lung Disease?

Restrictive lung disease is a category of respiratory disorders characterized by reduced lung volume and limited lung expansion. The issue can arise from stiff lung tissue or external constraints. Common causes include pulmonary fibrosis, chest wall deformities, and neuromuscular conditions. This results in difficulty inhaling and reduced oxygen intake.

Restrictive Lung Disease Pleurisy Vector Illustration

Types of Restrictive Lung Diseases

Restrictive lung diseases can be classified based on whether they originate from problems inside or outside the lung parenchyma.

Some examples of the most common types include:

Note: Each type has distinct etiologies, pathophysiologies, clinical presentations, and treatments. The unifying theme across these diseases is the restriction of lung expansion and reduced total lung capacity (TLC).

Pulmonary Fibrosis

Pulmonary fibrosis is a condition where the lung tissue becomes scarred and thickened, reducing its ability to transfer oxygen to the bloodstream.

This scarring can be due to various causes, including long-term exposure to certain toxins, radiation, medications, and certain lung diseases. The progressive scarring can lead to shortness of breath, a persistent dry cough, and fatigue.


Asbestosis is a chronic lung disease caused by prolonged inhalation of asbestos fibers, often associated with occupational exposures.

When these tiny fibers are inhaled, they can embed themselves in the lung tissue, causing inflammation and eventually leading to fibrous scar tissue formation.

Asbestosis manifests as shortness of breath, a crackling sound when breathing, and clubbing of the fingertips, progressing over time to more severe respiratory complications.


Sarcoidosis is an inflammatory disease that can affect multiple organs in the body but most commonly targets the lungs. It results in the formation of small granulomas—tiny clumps of inflammatory cells—in the affected tissues.

The exact cause of sarcoidosis is unknown, but it’s thought to be related to both genetic and environmental factors. Symptoms can range from mild to severe and might include shortness of breath, persistent cough, and chest pain.

Pleural Effusion

Pleural effusion refers to the buildup of excess fluid between the layers of the pleura, the thin membranes lining the lungs and the inside of the chest wall.

This accumulation can result from various conditions, such as heart failure, infections, malignancies, or trauma. The presence of this fluid can compress the lungs, causing shortness of breath, chest pain, and coughing.


Pneumothorax occurs when air leaks into the space between the lung and the chest wall, causing the lung to collapse.

This can arise from a chest injury, certain medical procedures, or spontaneously in people with weakened lung tissue.

Symptoms often include sudden chest pain and shortness of breath. In severe cases, it requires immediate medical attention.

Pleural Tumors

Pleural tumors are abnormal growths that develop on the pleura. While some are benign, others, like malignant pleural mesothelioma, are cancerous and often linked to asbestos exposure.

These tumors can cause chest pain, chronic cough, and dyspnea. Diagnosis often requires imaging studies and biopsy, and treatment options vary based on the type and stage of the tumor.

Pulmonary Edema

Pulmonary edema is the accumulation of fluid in the air sacs of the lungs, often resulting from heart problems like left-sided heart failure.

When the heart is unable to pump efficiently, blood can back up into the pulmonary veins, leading to fluid leakage into the lungs.

This makes breathing difficult and can deprive the body of oxygen. Symptoms include shortness of breath, wheezing, and a feeling of suffocation, especially when lying down.

Chest Wall Trauma

Chest wall trauma refers to injuries that impact the chest area, such as rib fractures, bruising, or penetrating injuries. Such trauma can restrict lung expansion and compromise breathing.

The causes range from motor vehicle accidents to falls or direct blows. Symptoms can include sharp pain, especially with breathing or coughing, bruising, and swelling. Severe trauma can lead to pneumothorax or hemothorax, which may require medical intervention.


Kyphoscoliosis is a combined spinal deformity where there’s both outward (kyphosis) and lateral (scoliosis) curvature. This structural change in the spine can limit the space available for lung expansion, leading to restrictive lung disease.

The severity of respiratory impairment depends on the extent of the spinal curvature. Patients might experience back pain, noticeable spinal deformity, and breathing difficulties, especially with exertion.

Guillain-Barré Syndrome

Guillain-Barré Syndrome (GBS) is a rare neurological disorder in which the body’s immune system mistakenly attacks part of the peripheral nervous system.

While primarily known for causing rapidly progressive muscle weakness, it can also affect the respiratory muscles, leading to breathing difficulties. Some patients with GBS may require mechanical ventilation due to the severity of respiratory muscle involvement.

Myasthenia Gravis

Myasthenia Gravis is an autoimmune disease where antibodies attack the neuromuscular junctions, leading to muscle weakness and fatigue.

This weakness can involve the respiratory muscles, causing shortness of breath and respiratory failure in severe cases. Symptoms tend to worsen after periods of activity and improve after rest.


Scleroderma, or systemic sclerosis, is a chronic connective tissue disease characterized by the hardening and tightening of the skin and connective tissues.

When it affects the lungs, it can lead to pulmonary fibrosis, pulmonary hypertension, and other respiratory complications. Shortness of breath, fatigue, and a dry cough are common respiratory symptoms associated with scleroderma.

Morbid Obesity

Morbid obesity refers to individuals who have a body mass index (BMI) that’s significantly above the normal range. Excessive body weight can place added pressure on the chest wall and diaphragm, restricting full lung expansion.

This can lead to hypoventilation, decreased lung volumes, and diminished respiratory function. Common respiratory symptoms include shortness of breath with minimal exertion and sleep apnea.

Signs and Symptoms

Restrictive lung diseases encompass a variety of conditions, and while each has specific clinical manifestations, many share overlapping signs and symptoms due to the primary problem of limited lung expansion and reduced lung volume.

Here are common signs and symptoms associated with restrictive lung diseases:

  • Shortness of Breath: Especially during exertion but can also occur at rest in severe cases.
  • Dry, Persistent Cough: Often non-productive and can be chronic.
  • Chest Pain or Discomfort: Can be sharp, dull, or aching depending on the underlying cause.
  • Fatigue: Due to reduced oxygen exchange leading to decreased oxygen delivery to tissues.
  • Rapid Shallow Breathing: Breathing might become more rapid due to decreased lung volume.
  • Reduced Exercise Tolerance: Activities that were previously manageable become more challenging due to breathing difficulties.
  • Wheezing or Crackles: Audible when breathing, often indicating fluid or fibrosis in the lungs.
  • Weight Loss: In certain conditions, especially if appetite is affected.
  • Recurrent Respiratory Infections: Due to compromised lung function.
  • Cyanosis: A bluish tint to the skin, lips, or nails, indicating reduced oxygen levels in the blood.
  • Reduced Chest Wall Movement: Especially noticeable with deep breaths or during exertion.

Note: The severity and combination of these symptoms can vary widely based on the specific type of restrictive lung disease and its progression. Always consult with a medical professional if any of these symptoms are experienced.


Restrictive lung diseases arise from a myriad of causes that limit the full expansion of the lungs, consequently reducing their volume. Intrinsic causes, which affect the lung tissue directly, include conditions like interstitial lung diseases.

These can be a result of prolonged exposure to harmful substances, such as asbestos leading to asbestosis, or due to autoimmune disorders like scleroderma, which affect lung tissue.

Infections, certain medications, radiation, and genetic factors can also damage lung tissue, leading to fibrosis or scarring. Extrinsic causes, on the other hand, affect the lungs indirectly. These range from abnormalities or injuries to the chest wall, like kyphoscoliosis (a spinal deformity) or chest trauma, which restricts lung expansion.

Pleural diseases, such as pleural effusion or tumors, can also limit lung expansion by occupying space within the chest cavity. Additionally, neuromuscular conditions like Guillain-Barré syndrome and myasthenia gravis can weaken the muscles responsible for breathing, thereby reducing lung volumes.

Another significant extrinsic cause is morbid obesity, where excessive body weight impedes the mechanics of breathing.

Note: All these factors, whether intrinsic or extrinsic, converge to compromise lung function by reducing their capacity for expansion.


The treatment of restrictive lung diseases primarily focuses on addressing the underlying cause, managing symptoms, and improving the patient’s quality of life. For diseases caused by environmental exposures, such as asbestosis, the primary approach is to prevent further exposure. This may include occupational changes or using protective equipment.

For interstitial lung diseases with an inflammatory or autoimmune basis, like sarcoidosis or scleroderma, immunosuppressive medications, such as corticosteroids or other immunomodulating agents, are often prescribed. They help reduce inflammation and slow the progression of the disease.

When fibrosis is significant, as in pulmonary fibrosis, antifibrotic agents like pirfenidone or nintedanib can be used to decelerate disease progression.

In cases where restrictive lung disease results from fluid build-up, like in pleural effusion or pulmonary edema, diuretics or therapeutic procedures to drain the fluid might be indicated. Pneumothorax, the presence of air in the pleural space, may require a chest tube insertion or surgery to remove the air and allow the lung to re-expand.

For neuromuscular causes of restrictive lung disease, such as Guillain-Barré syndrome or myasthenia gravis, treatment may involve plasmapheresis, intravenous immunoglobulins, or medications to enhance neuromuscular transmission.

When the disease involves chest wall abnormalities, physical therapy can sometimes help improve breathing mechanics. In severe cases, surgery might be recommended to correct deformities.

Oxygen therapy may be beneficial for those who have significantly reduced oxygen levels in their blood. This can help alleviate symptoms and improve overall well-being.

Pulmonary rehabilitation, a comprehensive program that combines exercise training, education, and counseling, can be beneficial for many patients with restrictive lung diseases. It aims to enhance physical function, reduce symptoms, and improve the overall quality of life.

In end-stage diseases or severe cases where other treatments are ineffective, lung transplantation may be considered as a last resort.

Note: It’s imperative to emphasize that the optimal treatment plan for restrictive lung diseases often requires a multidisciplinary approach and should be individualized based on the patient’s specific diagnosis, severity, and overall health. Regular monitoring and follow-ups with healthcare professionals are crucial to adjust treatments as needed and monitor for potential complications.

Restrictive Lung Disease Practice Questions

1. What is the general problem with restrictive lung diseases?
They restrict the expansion of the lungs.

2. How are lung volumes affected by restrictive lung diseases?
They are decreased.

3. How is the FEV1/FVC ratio affected by restrictive lung diseases?
It increases.

4. What are the primary causes of restrictive lung diseases?
Chest wall disorders, poor muscular effort to breathe, and interstitial lung diseases.

5. What chest wall disorders can cause restrictive lung disease?
Scoliosis, kyphosis, and obesity.

6. What are the clinical findings of restrictive lung diseases?
Dry cough, dyspnea on exertion, late inspiratory crackles, cor pulmonale, decreased lung volumes, and an increased FEV1/FVC ratio.

7. What type of disease is characterized by decreased lung compliance, increased inspiratory effort, and smaller static and dynamic lung volumes?
Restrictive lung disease

8. What are the two types of restrictive lung diseases?
Extrapulmonary and parenchymal

9. What causes extrapulmonary restrictive lung disease?
Conditions that limit the inspiratory movement of the chest wall.

10. What conditions cause chest wall deformities?
Muscular dystrophy, kyphoscoliosis, and obesity.

11. What is another term for parenchymal restrictive lung disease?
Interstitial lung disease

12. What does a restrictive pattern demonstrate in pulmonary function testing?
Decreased total lung capacity and a normal or increased FEV1/FVC ratio

13. What is the definition of restrictive lung disease?
A type of disease that causes a reduction in lung volumes.

14. What volume readings are affected in restrictive lung disease?
Vital capacity and total lung capacity

15. What are the two types of restrictive lung diseases?
Intrinsic and extrinsic

16. What is affected by an intrinsic restrictive lung disease?
The lung parenchyma

17. What is affected by an extrinsic restrictive lung disease?
The pleura or chest wall

18. What is the definition of an intrinsic restrictive lung disease?
A disease that causes inflammation or scarring of lung tissue.

19. What is the definition of an extrinsic restrictive lung disease?
A disease of the chest wall, pleura, or respiratory muscles.

20. What are the types of intrinsic restrictive lung diseases?
Sarcoidosis, idiopathic pulmonary fibrosis, interstitial lung disease, ARDS, and IRDS.

21. What are the types of extrinsic restrictive lung diseases?
Myasthenia gravis, Guillain-barre syndrome, kyphosis, and diseases that restrict the lower thoracic region.

22. What spirometry tests are used to diagnose a restrictive lung disease?
Functional residual capacity (FRC)

23. What is sarcoidosis?
A multi-system inflammatory disease of unknown etiology characterized by granulomas in lungs and intrathoracic lymph nodes.

24. What is idiopathic pulmonary fibrosis?
A type of chronic progressive interstitial scarring that disrupts alveolar epithelial cells and causes diffuse epithelial cell disorganization.

25. What can cause interstitial lung disease?
Asbestosis, silicosis, pneumoconiosis, medications, radiation, hypersensitivity pneumonitis, rheumatoid arthritis, lupus, and scleroderma.

26. What part of the lung does ILD affect?
The pulmonary interstitium

27. What do normal lungs allow?
They allow space for efficient gas exchange to occur.

28. What does an increase in interstitial tissue cause?
Decreased perfusion

29. Is asthma an obstructive or restrictive lung disease?

30. How serious are restrictive lung diseases?
Restrictive lung diseases can lead to a variety of signs and symptoms and can be life-threatening in severe cases.

31. What is the difference between a restrictive and obstructive lung disease?
Obstructive lung diseases are characterized by decreased flows, while restrictive lung diseases are characterized by decreased lung volumes.

32. Why is pneumonia a restrictive lung disease?
Because it results in lung consolidation and decreased lung volumes.

33. What is typical of restrictive lung diseases?
Decreased lung expansion

34. What test would you use to determine if a patient has a restrictive lung disease?

35. What is a mixed obstructive and restrictive lung disease?
A disease that results in both obstruction and restriction of the lungs.

36. What is a common symptom of restrictive lung diseases?
Shortness of breath

37. How is a restrictive lung disease diagnosed?
By assessing a patient’s PFT results.

38. How does a restrictive lung disease affect ventilation?
The lungs are not able to expand, which results in decreased ventilation.

39. Is a pneumothorax an obstructive or restrictive lung disease?

40. Is COPD an obstructive or restrictive lung disease?

41. How can you improve a patient’s lung volume when they have a restrictive lung disease?
Perform lung expansion therapy

42. Why does the ERV decrease in restrictive lung diseases?
The patient’s lung volumes are decreased, which results in a decreased expired volume.

43. How can you treat a restrictive lung disease?
Lung expansion therapy, medications, and oxygen therapy.

44. What is decreased in restrictive lung diseases?
Lung volumes

45. What is the best indicator of a restrictive lung disease?
A decreased vital capacity

46. A patient with a decreased FEV1 and normal FEV1/FVC ratio has what type of disease?
Restrictive lung disease

47. What does a flow-volume loop look like for a patient with a restrictive lung disease?
The loop will appear tall and skinny.

48. How much are lung volumes decreased in a restrictive lung disease?
At least 20%

49. A patient with decreased flows and volumes has what type of lung disease?
Both obstructive and restrictive

50. What happens to the residual volume in a restrictive lung disease?
It decreases

Final Thoughts

Restrictive lung diseases pose significant challenges to respiratory function due to their limiting nature on lung expansion.

Understanding their underlying causes and clinical manifestations is crucial for accurate diagnosis and tailored therapeutic interventions.

Continued research and advances in treatment modalities offer hope for improved outcomes for patients. Awareness and early detection remain vital in mitigating the progression and complications of these diseases.

John Landry, BS, RRT

Written by:

John Landry, BS, RRT

John Landry is a registered respiratory therapist from Memphis, TN, and has a bachelor's degree in kinesiology. He enjoys using evidence-based research to help others breathe easier and live a healthier life.


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  • Clinical Manifestations and Assessment of Respiratory Disease. 8th ed., Mosby, 2019.
  • Martinez-Pitre, Pedro J., et al. “Restrictive Lung Disease.” National Library of Medicine. 2024.
  • Caronia, Jonathan D. Robert. “Restrictive Lung Disease: Background, Pathophysiology, Etiology.” Medscape, 11 Jan. 2022.

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