Thoracic surgery is the repair of organs located in the thorax, or chest. The thoracic cavity lies between the
Thoracic surgery repairs diseased or injured organs and tissues in the thoracic cavity. General thoracic surgery deals specifically with disorders of the lungs and esophagus. Cardiothoracic surgery also encompasses disorders of the heart and pericardium. Blunt chest trauma, reflux esophagitis, esophageal cancer, lung transplantation, lung cancer, and emphysema are just a few of the many clinical indications for thoracic surgery.
Patients who have blood-clotting problems (coagulopathies), and who have had previous standard thoracic surgery may not be good candidates for video-assisted thoracic surgery (VATS). Because VATS requires the collapse of one lung, potential patients should have adequate respiratory function to maintain oxygenation during the procedure.
Thoracic surgery is usually performed by a surgeon who specializes in either general thoracic surgery or cardiothoracic surgery. The patient is placed under general anesthesia and endotracheally intubated for the procedure. The procedure followed varies according to the purpose of the surgery. An incision that opens the chest (thoracotomy) is frequently performed to give the surgeon access to the thoracic cavity. Commonly, the incision is made beginning on the back under the shoulder blade and extends in a curved arc under the arm to the front of the chest. The muscles are cut, and the ribs are spread with a retractor. The surgeon may also choose to open the chest through an incision down the breastbone, or sternum (sternotomy). Once the repair, replacement, or removal of the organ being operated on is complete, a chest tube is inserted between the ribs to drain the wound and re-expand the lung.
Video-assisted thoracic surgery (VATS) is a minimally invasive surgical technique that uses a thoracic endoscope (thoracoscope) to allow the surgeon to view the chest cavity. A lung is collapsed and 3-4 small incisions, or access ports, are made to facilitate insertion of the thoracoscope and the surgical instruments. During the procedure, the surgeon views the inside of the pleural space on a video monitor. The thoracoscope may be extracted and inserted through a different incision site as needed. When the surgical procedure is complete, the surgeon expands the lung and inserts a chest tube in one of the incision sites. The remaining incisions are sealed with adhesive.
The thoracic surgeon may also use a mediastinoscope or a bronchoscope to explore the thoracic cavity. Mediastinoscopy allows visualization of the mediastinum, the cavity located between the lungs. The bronchoscope enables the surgeon to view the larynx, trachea, and bronchi. These instruments may be used in a separate diagnostic procedure prior to thoracic surgery, or during the surgery itself.
Except in the case of emergency procedures, candidates for general thoracic surgery should undergo a complete medical history and thorough physical examination prior to surgery. Particular attention is given to the respiratory system. The patient's smoking history will be questioned. If the patient is an active smoker, encouragement is always given for the patient to quit smoking prior to the surgery to facilitate recovery and reduce chances of complications.
Diagnostic tests used to evaluate the patient preoperatively may include, but are not limited to, X-rays, MRI, CT scans, blood gas analysis, pulmonary function tests, electrocardiography, endoscopy, pulmonary angiography, and sputum culture.
Candidates for thoracic surgery should be fully educated by their physician or surgeon on what their surgery will involve, the possible risks and complications, and requirements for postoperative care.
Patients are instructed not to eat 10 to 12 hours prior to a thoracic surgery procedure. A sedative may be provided to relax the patient prior to surgery. An intravenous line (IV) is inserted into the patient's arm or neck to administer fluids and/or medication.
After surgery, the patient is taken to the recovery room, where vital signs are monitored; depending on
The hospital stay for thoracic surgery depends on the specific procedure performed. Patients who undergo a thoracotomy may be hospitalized a week or longer, while patients undergoing VATS typically have a shorter hospital stay of 2-3 days. During the recovery period, respiratory therapists and nurses work with the patient on deep breathing and coughing exercises to improve lung function.
Respiratory failure, hemorrhage, nerve injury, heart attack, stroke, embolism, and infection are all possible complications of general thoracic surgery. The chest tubes used for drainage after thoracic surgery may cause a build-up of fluid or the accumulation of air in the pleural space. Both of these conditions can lead to total lung collapse. Other specific complications may occur, depending on the procedure performed.
Normal results of thoracic surgery are dependent on the type of procedure performed and the clinical purpose of the surgery.
American Thoracic Society. 1740 Broadway, New York, NY 10019. (212) 315-8700. <http://www.thoracic.org>.
Paula Anne Ford-Martin
Electrocardiography—A cardiac test that measures the electrical activity of the heart.
Embolism—A blood clot, air bubble, or clot of foreign material that blocks the flow of blood in an artery. When blood supply to a tissue or organ is blocked by an embolism, infarction, or death of the tissue that the artery feeds, occurs. Without immediate and appropriate treatment, an embolism can be fatal.
Emphysema—A lung disease characterized by shortness of breath and a chronic cough. Emphysema is caused by the progressive stretching and rupture of alveoli, the air sacs in the lung that oxygenate the blood.
Intubation—Insertion of an endotracheal tube down the throat to facilitate airflow to the lung(s) during thoracic surgery.
Pericardium—The sac around the heart.
Pleural space—The space between the pleural membranes that surround the lungs and the chest cavity.
Pulmonary angiography—An x-ray study of the lungs, performed by insertion of a catheter into a vein, through the heart, and into the pulmonary artery. Pulmonary angiography is performed to evaluate blood circulation to the lungs. It is also considered the most accurate diagnostic test for detecting a pulmonary embolism.
Sputum culture—A laboratory analysis of the fluid produced from the lungs during coughing. A sputum culture can confirm the presence of pathogens in the respiratory system, and help to diagnose certain respiratory infections, including bronchitis, tuberculosis, and pneumonia.