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Thoracic Cavity (Chest)

The chest cavity, or thoracic cavity, contains vital organs such as the heart and lungs, the digestive system, and the spine. Diseases of the thoracic region can be life-threatening.

A common symptom of a disease of the chest is chest pain, which can be caused by a number of serious conditions, including:

  • Cardiovascular disease
  • Respiratory disorders
  • Digestive ailments
  • Musculoskeletal problems

While not all chest pain is a sign of a serious illness, it is important for you to see a physician if you experience symptoms such as tightness of the chest, shortness of breath, persistent heartburn or reflux, or pain in the chest, as these may be indicative of a serious medical condition.

Some respiratory infections may cause chest pain, and diseases such as shingles may also cause pain before the development of the signature rash. Strain from exercise as well as trauma to the rib cage or sternum (breastbone) may also cause chest pain.


Atelectasis is a condition where part of the lung collapses, causing chest pain. Blockage of the bronchial tubes in the lungs may cause air to become trapped, which will cause a sensation of shortness of breath. This may be caused by something in the bronchial tubes, such as a(n):

  • Mucus plug
  • Tumor
  • Inhaled foreign object

Something outside the bronchus may also cause a blockage.


This is the buildup of air or gas in the pleural space in the chest, which causes the lung to collapse, and accompanying chest pain. This may be caused by physical trauma to the lung, such as a wound, or without an apparent cause, in which case it is known as spontaneous pneumothorax.


If a pneumothorax is small enough, it may go away on its own; if it is a large pneumothorax, your surgeon may need to place a chest tube between the ribs and into the space around the lungs in order to drain the air and let the affected lung(s) reinflate.

Depending on the severity of the pneumothorax, lung surgery may be necessary for treatment or even prevention of future collapses of the lung.

In cases of atelectasis, your doctor may recommend any of the following:

  • Percussion on the chest to loosen mucus plugs in the airway

  • Deep breathing exercises with an incentive spirometer

  • Removal of any blockages through bronchoscopy or another interventional pulmonology procedure

  • Postural drainage—tilting so your head is lower than your chest to facilitate drainage of mucus

  • Removal of a tumor, if it is causing the condition

  • Turning the patient onto their unaffected side, to allow the collapsed section of lung to reinflate 

Why Choose Northwestern Memorial?

The Thoracic Surgery Program at Northwestern Memorial Hospital offers the latest surgical procedures for benign and malignant diseases of the chest, including the tracheobronchial tree (airways), lungs, pleura, esophagus, diaphragm, chest wall and mediastinum.

Last UpdateJanuary 24, 2012