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 - Northwestern Memorial Hospital - Chicago


Thoracotomy is an incision used by your surgeon to evaluate and operate on your lung. An incision is made into the side of your chest between the ribs. This allows the surgeon to see into the chest to look at the:

  • Lining of the chest (pleura)
  • Different sections of the lung (lobes)
  • Surrounding structures (esophagus, heart, thymus and lymph nodes)

The right lung has 3 lobes, called the upper, middle, and lower lobes. There are 2 lobes on the left—the upper and lower lobes.

Using this method, depending on the stage of your cancer, the surgeon may remove:

  • One lobe of a lung (lobectomy)
  • An entire lung (pneumonectomy)
  • Only one segment of a lung (segmentectomy)
  • A wedge-shaped piece of lung (wedge resection)

The type of surgery you will have depends on your condition and how well your lungs work. Your doctor will describe the options and discuss the benefits and risks with you.

During Surgery

Once you arrive in the operating room, general anesthesia is given. It begins with IV medicine and includes breathing anesthetic gases mixed with oxygen. You will not be aware of the surgery or your surroundings. A breathing tube is placed into your windpipe after you are asleep to help you breathe during surgery. This is why some patients have a slight sore throat for a day after surgery. A tube is also placed in your bladder to drain urine.

You will be positioned comfortably on your side. The surgeon will examine and remove the lung tissue. Before you leave the operating room, a tube is inserted into the chest and connected to a container. The tube will drain air and fluid from the chest.

After Surgery

Most patients stay in the hospital for 5 to 7 days after a thoracotomy, and may spend a day or two in the intensive care unit after surgery.

Patients will be asked to walk as soon as possible after surgery, and will be asked to do deep breathing exercises to help prevent pneumonia or other lung infections. These exercises also help inflate the lung that was operated on.

The chest tube(s) will remain in place until the lung has healed enough that air and fluid stop draining from the tube. The tube is usually removed before discharge from the hospital.


Last UpdateFebruary 14, 2012