Rigid vs Flexible Bronchoscopy Illustration

Rigid vs. Flexible Bronchoscopy: An Overview (2024)

by | Updated: Apr 21, 2024

Bronchoscopy is a procedure that involves passing a bronchoscope into the airways of the lungs for diagnostic and therapeutic purposes.

Rigid and flexible bronchoscopy are the two main types employed by physicians to assess and treat various respiratory disorders.

In this article, we will explore the distinctive characteristics of rigid and flexible bronchoscopy, examining their respective advantages, limitations, and clinical applications.

What is a Bronchoscopy?

Bronchoscopy is a medical procedure that allows physicians to visualize and examine the airways and lungs directly. It involves inserting a thin, flexible or rigid tube (i.e., bronchoscope) through the patient’s nose or mouth, down the trachea, and into the airways of the lungs.

This technique is essential for diagnosing, evaluating, and treating various lung and airway disorders.

Bronchoscopy can be used for both diagnostic and therapeutic purposes:

  • Diagnostic bronchoscopy: Helps physicians identify and assess conditions such as lung infections, tumors, chronic cough, and other abnormalities within the airways.
  • Therapeutic bronchoscopy: Used to treat certain lung conditions, including removing foreign objects, controlling bleeding, or dilating narrowed airways using stents or other interventions.

Types of Bronchoscopy

There are two main types of bronchoscopy, each with its unique set of advantages and applications:

  1. Flexible bronchoscopy
  2. Rigid bronchoscopy

Flexible Bronchoscopy

This type uses a flexible, thin, and lighted tube called a flexible bronchoscope. It is the most commonly used bronchoscopy method due to its versatility and patient comfort.

The flexible bronchoscope can easily navigate through the complex branching of the airways, enabling physicians to examine hard-to-reach areas. It is also better tolerated by patients, as it usually does not require general anesthesia.

Flexible bronchoscopy is often employed for diagnostic purposes, such as obtaining tissue samples (biopsies) or bronchoalveolar lavage samples, as well as some therapeutic interventions like removing small foreign objects, dilating airways, or administering localized treatments.

Rigid Bronchoscopy

This type uses a rigid, straight, hollow metal tube called a rigid bronchoscope. Although less commonly used in modern practice, rigid bronchoscopy has several advantages in specific clinical situations.

The rigid bronchoscope offers a larger working channel and more stability, making it ideal for managing severe airway bleeding, removing large foreign bodies, or performing more extensive therapeutic interventions like airway stenting or tumor debulking.

Rigid bronchoscopy typically requires general anesthesia, as it is more invasive and less comfortable for the patient.

Note: Each type of bronchoscopy has its particular strengths, and the choice between them depends on the patient’s condition, the physician’s expertise, and the goals of the procedure. In some cases, both types of bronchoscopy may be used in combination to address complex airway issues.


Bronchoscopy is a valuable diagnostic and therapeutic tool for various respiratory conditions.

The indications for bronchoscopy can be broadly categorized into diagnostic and therapeutic purposes:

Diagnostic Indications

  • Unexplained or persistent cough: A bronchoscopy may be performed to identify the cause of a chronic cough, which could result from various conditions, including infections, tumors, or inflammation.
  • Hemoptysis: In cases of coughing up blood, a bronchoscopy can help determine the source of bleeding and identify any underlying lung disorders.
  • Lung infections: Bronchoscopy can aid in diagnosing lung infections such as pneumonia, tuberculosis, or fungal infections, especially when conventional tests do not provide a clear diagnosis.
  • Abnormal imaging findings: When chest X-rays or CT scans reveal lung abnormalities such as masses, nodules, or infiltrates, a bronchoscopy may be used to obtain tissue samples for further analysis.
  • Suspected lung cancer: Bronchoscopy can be used to collect biopsy samples from suspicious lesions to confirm or rule out malignancy.
  • Preoperative evaluation: Prior to lung surgery, a bronchoscopy can help assess the airways and plan the surgical approach.

Therapeutic Indications

  • Foreign body removal: Bronchoscopy can be used to remove foreign objects accidentally inhaled into the airways, such as food particles or small toys.
  • Airway obstruction: Bronchoscopy can help relieve airway obstructions caused by tumors, strictures, or excessive secretions.
  • Airway stenting: In cases of airway narrowing due to tumors or strictures, bronchoscopy can be used to insert a stent to maintain airway patency.
  • Bronchial thermoplasty: This bronchoscopic procedure is used to treat severe asthma by applying heat to the airway walls to reduce excessive smooth muscle tissue.
  • Control of bleeding: Bronchoscopy can be utilized to manage hemoptysis by locating the bleeding site and applying localized treatments such as cauterization or tamponade.
  • Tracheobronchial lavage: This procedure involves washing the airways to remove mucus or debris, which can be helpful in patients with chronic lung conditions like cystic fibrosis.

The choice of bronchoscopy type, flexible or rigid, depends on the specific indication, physician’s experience, and patient’s condition.

In some cases, both types may be employed to address complex airway issues effectively.


While bronchoscopy is a valuable tool in diagnosing and treating respiratory conditions, it is not suitable for every patient or situation.

There are certain contraindications for a bronchoscopy procedure, including the following:

Absolute Contraindications

  • Unstable cardiopulmonary status: Patients with severe heart or lung disease, such as unstable angina, acute myocardial infarction, or respiratory failure, may not tolerate the procedure well, and bronchoscopy may pose a significant risk.
  • Severe coagulopathy: Patients with severe bleeding disorders or who are on high doses of anticoagulants are at an increased risk of bleeding during the procedure and may require correction of coagulation parameters before bronchoscopy.

Relative Contraindications

  • Recent myocardial infarction or unstable angina: Patients with a recent heart attack or unstable chest pain may be at increased risk of complications. The benefits of the procedure should be weighed against the risks.
  • Hypoxemia: Patients with low blood oxygen levels should be carefully evaluated, and supplemental oxygen may be required during the procedure.
  • Uncontrolled hypertension: High blood pressure increases the risk of complications, so it is essential to control blood pressure before the procedure.
  • Known difficult airway or tracheal stenosis: Patients with a known difficult airway or significant tracheal narrowing may have an increased risk of complications during bronchoscopy. Alternative diagnostic or therapeutic options should be considered.
  • Inability to cooperate or follow instructions: Patients who cannot cooperate, such as those with cognitive impairment, agitation, or severe anxiety, may pose a challenge during the procedure. In these cases, sedation or anesthesia may be considered to facilitate the procedure.
  • Severe facial or neck trauma: Patients with recent severe facial or neck trauma may have increased risk of complications due to swelling or airway compromise.
  • Active infection with highly contagious pathogens: In cases of suspected or confirmed highly contagious infections, such as tuberculosis or severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS), bronchoscopy should be performed with caution, and appropriate infection control measures must be taken to minimize the risk of transmission.

Note: It is crucial to evaluate each patient individually, taking into account the potential benefits of bronchoscopy against the risks associated with the procedure. In some cases, alternative diagnostic or therapeutic methods may be considered if bronchoscopy is contraindicated.

Final Thoughts

Bronchoscopy is an indispensable diagnostic and therapeutic tool in the management of various respiratory conditions.

Flexible and rigid bronchoscopy offer unique advantages and applications; therefore, the choice between the two techniques relies on the patient’s condition, the physician’s expertise, and the goals of the procedure.

While bronchoscopy has proven to be highly valuable in many clinical scenarios, it is crucial to carefully evaluate each patient, considering the potential benefits and risks associated with the procedure.

By understanding the indications, contraindications, and clinical applications of both flexible and rigid bronchoscopy, medical professionals can make informed decisions and optimize patient outcomes in the diagnosis and treatment of respiratory disorders.

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.


  • Mahmoud N, Vashisht R, Sanghavi D, et al. Bronchoscopy. [Updated 2022 Sep 21]. In: StatPearls [Internet]. Treasure Island (FL): StatPearls Publishing; 2023 Jan-.
  • Wu, Lei et al. “Flexible Bronchoscopy Combined with Rigid Bronchoscopy for Treatment of Scarring in the Bronchus Caused by a Foreign Body.” Case reports in medicine vol. 2019 4616298. 17 Jun.
  • Stahl, David L et al. “Complications of bronchoscopy: A concise synopsis.” International journal of critical illness and injury science vol. 5,3 (2015).

Recommended Reading