You can prepare for a thoracotomy by:

  • Answering all questions about your medical history and medications. This includes prescriptions, over-the-counter drugs, herbal treatments, and vitamins. It is a good idea to carry a current list of your medical conditions, medications, and allergies at all times.
  • Getting preoperative testing as directed. Testing varies depending on your age, health, and specific procedure. Preoperative testing may include a chest X-ray, other imaging studies, EKG (electrocardiogram), pulmonary function tests, blood tests, and other tests as needed.
  • Losing excess weight before the surgery through a healthy diet and exercise plan
  • Not eating or drinking before surgery as directed. Your surgery may be cancelled if you eat or drink too close to the start of surgery because you can choke on stomach contents during anesthesia.
  • Stopping smoking as soon as possible. Even quitting for just a few days can be beneficial and help the healing process.
  • Taking or stopping medications exactly as directed. This may include not taking aspirin, ibuprofen (Advil, Motrin), and blood thinners. You may need to take a laxative or use an enema to clean out your bowel the day before surgery.

Questions to ask your doctor

Facing surgery can be stressful. It is common for patients to forget some of their questions during a brief doctor’s office visit. You may also think of other questions after your appointment. Contact your doctor with concerns and questions before surgery and between appointments.

It is also a good idea to bring a list of questions to your appointments. Questions can include:

  • Why do I need a thoracotomy? Are there any other options for treating my condition?
  • Which type of thoracotomy procedure will I need? What other procedures will I need?
  • How long will the surgery take? When can I go home?
  • What restrictions will I have after the surgery? When can I return to work and other activities?
  • What kind of assistance will I need at home?
  • How should I take my medications?
  • How will you treat my pain?
  • When should I follow up with you?
  • How should I contact you? Ask for numbers to call during and after regular hours.

What can I expect after my thoracotomy?

Knowing what to expect can help make your road to recovery after a thoracotomy as smooth as possible. 

How long will it take to recover?

Your care team may move you to an intensive care unit (ICU) to recover after surgery. ICUs provide 24-hour specialized monitoring and care. 

It may take a few hours until the major effects of anesthesia have worn off and you are alert. When you wake up, you may have a breathing tube in your mouth and tubes and wires attached to your body. These allow your team to monitor your vital signs, drain fluids from your chest and bladder, take blood, and give medications and fluids. 

You will not be able to talk if you have a breathing tube, but it is usually removed within 24 hours. You may have a sore throat if a tube was placed in your windpipe during surgery. This is usually temporary, but tell your care team if you are uncomfortable. The chest drains and urinary catheter will be removed several days after surgery.

You may move to a hospital room outside the ICU as you recover. This room will have the equipment to monitor your heart rhythm and vital signs. Hospital stays typically range from five to 10 days.

Recovery after surgery is a gradual process. Recovery time varies depending on the procedure, type of anesthesia, your general health, age, and other factors. Your doctor may refer you to a rehabilitation program to help you recover. Full recovery takes up to three months.

Will I feel pain?

Pain control is important for healing and a smooth recovery. There will be discomfort after your surgery. Your doctor will treat your pain so you are comfortable and can get the rest you need. Call your doctor if your pain gets worse or changes because it may be a sign of a complication. 

When should I call my doctor?

It is important to keep your follow-up appointments after a thoracotomy. Contact your doctor for questions and concerns between appointments. Call your doctor right away or seek immediate medical care if you have: