A thoracotomy is a surgical procedure performed to open the chest cavity. It is a six- to 10-inch incision made into the chest that allows surgeons to access the throat, lungs, heart and diaphragm.
A thoracotomy incision can be made:
- Between the ribs on the front or side of the chest (limited anterior or lateral thoracotomy)
- Down the front of the chest, through the breastbone (sternal splitting thoracotomy)
- Across the side and around the back of the chest (posterolateral thoracotomy)
A thoracotomy may be part of a patient’s surgical treatment if he or she has been diagnosed with diseases, disorders or conditions such as:
- Heart disease
- Lung cancer or some other types of cancer
- Permanently collapsed lung tissue (atelectasis)
- Diseased or damaged lung tissue
- Diseased or damaged blood vessels in the heart or lung
- Blood in the lungs (hemothorax)
- Infection in the chest cavity (empyema)
- Diaphragm disorders
- Esophageal or trachea (windpipe) conditions
Depending on the type of disease or disorder a patient has been diagnosed with, a surgeon will perform a thoracotomy followed by another surgical procedure, such as a:
- Lobectomy (removal of one or more lobes of the lungs)
- Esophagectomy (removal of all or part of the esophagus)
- Wedge resection (removal of part of a lung lobe)
- Pneumonectomy (removal of an entire lung)
- Decortication (removal of an organ’s membrane or covering)
- Open heart surgery
- Heart or lung transplant
- Tumor removal
- Tissue biopsy
A thoracotomy and the surgical procedure that follows it can take several hours. Because a thoracotomy is a major, open surgery, patients need to stay in the hospital for about a week.
When possible, our surgeons perform video-assisted thoracoscopic surgery instead of a thoracotomy. The minimally invasive procedure allows us to diagnose and treat some of the same diseases and disorders as with a thoracotomy, but with potentially less post-operative pain, fewer complications and a shorter hospital stay.
Learn more about lung cancer treatments
Thoracotomy is offered at our cancer hospitals in: Atlanta, Philadelphia, Tulsa, Phoenix and Chicago.