What You Need to Know About Thoracotomies


So you’ve been told you need a thoracotomy. Don’t panic. A thoracotomy means your doctor must access your chest cavity for some reason. It sounds scarier than it is. With modern surgical techniques, thoracotomies are very safe with minimal complications.

You’re probably wondering what a thoracotomy entails and why you need one. We get it; surgery of any kind can be anxiety-inducing. But knowledge is power, so read on to learn everything you need about thoracotomies to go into your procedure feeling as informed and empowered as possible.

What Is a Thoracotomy?

A thoracotomy is a surgical procedure where a surgeon makes an incision in your chest wall to gain access to your chest cavity or thorax.

  • The surgeon will make a 6 to 8-inch cut along your side, under your arm.
  • They spread your ribs apart to access your lungs, heart, esophagus, or other organs.
  • A thoracotomy allows surgeons to directly see, reach and repair damage from physical trauma, remove tumors or growths, treat infections, or perform other chest surgeries.

Recovery can take weeks, requiring chest tubes to drain fluid and air pockets, pain management, and respiratory therapy. But a thoracotomy can be lifesaving, allowing surgeons to conduct complex procedures that wouldn’t otherwise be possible with minimally invasive techniques alone.

How a Thoracotomy Procedure Works

A thoracotomy procedure involves making an incision in the chest wall to gain access to the thoracic cavity and lungs.

How It’s Performed

The thoracotomy incision is made along the side of the chest, cutting through skin, muscle, and rib cage to enter the chest cavity. The ribs are then separated, or a rib may be removed to allow the surgeon access. The incision is opened, allowing the surgeon to see and reach the lungs and other thoracic organs directly.

  • One lung is collapsed to gain access while the other continues breathing to oxygenate the blood.
  • Tubes are inserted to drain away fluid and air, keeping the open chest cavity clear.
  • The thoracotomy allows the surgeon to perform procedures like removing a lung tumor, treating abscesses, fixing a collapsed lung, or operating on the esophagus.
  • After the procedure, tubes remain in place as the incision is closed. The collapsed lung is re-inflated, and chest tubes remove any remaining air or fluid as the lung and incision heal.

A thoracotomy is a major procedure, but surgical techniques and postoperative care advancements have made them relatively safe and effective for treating severe thoracic conditions.

Recovering From a Thoracotomy: What to Expect

Managing Pain

After a thoracotomy, you can expect to experience pain around the incision site in your chest. Your doctor will prescribe pain medication to help manage discomfort during recovery. Take the pain medication as directed to keep the pain under control. If your pain is not improving or worsening, contact your doctor. They may need to adjust or change your medication.

Incision Care

The incision from your thoracotomy will require daily care and monitoring to prevent infection as it heals. Wash your hands thoroughly before handling the incision area. Clean the incision with water and mild soap, then pat dry with a clean towel.


While recovering, get plenty of rest, walk around, and do the light activity as tolerated to prevent blood clots and pneumonia. Start taking short walks a few times daily, then slowly increase your activity and endurance as your pain and energy levels improve. Avoid strenuous exercise and heavy lifting for at least 6 to 8 weeks.

Follow-Up Care

You will have follow-up appointments with your doctor to monitor your recovery. Stitches or staples are typically removed after 7 to 14 days. Let your doctor know immediately if you notice any signs of complications like infection, fluid buildup, or blood clots.


So there you have it, the key things you should know if you or someone you know is facing a thoracotomy. While it sounds like an effective procedure, medical advances have made them safer, and the outcomes are often good. The most important thing is to find an experienced surgeon you trust, follow their recommendations carefully, allow plenty of time to heal, and maintain a positive attitude. Though the recovery won’t happen overnight if you take it daily, stay on top of pain management, and are diligent with physical therapy, you’ll get stronger and return to enjoying life’s adventures before you know it.