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What is a thoracotomy?


A thoracotomy is the surgical opening of your chest cavity. It is a major surgery that allows your surgeon to access your throat, lungs, heart, aorta and diaphragm. Generally, a thoracotomy incision is located on the side of your chest. However, the exact location of a thoracotomy will depend on the disease, disorder or condition that your surgeon is treating. 

A thoracotomy is a common but major surgery with serious risks and potential complications. You may have less invasive treatment options. You should consider getting a second opinion about all your treatment choices before having a thoracotomy.

Types of thoracotomy

The types of thoracotomy procedures include:

  • Limited anterior or lateral thoracotomy is an incision between your ribs on the front or side of your chest. It is a smaller incision and allows access to the structures and organs in the front of your chest cavity.

  • Posterolateral thoracotomy is an incision across the side and around the back of your chest. It is a larger incision that allows access to more of your chest, including an entire lung.

  • Sternal splitting thoracotomy is an incision down the front of your chest and through your sternum (breastbone). It allows access to your entire chest, including both lungs and your heart.

Other procedures that may be performed

Your doctor may perform other procedures in addition to a thoracotomy. These include:

  • Decortication to remove a membrane or a fibrous covering of an organ

  • Esophagectomy to remove all or part of the esophagus

  • Lobectomy, the removal of one or more lobes of the lungs

  • Lung or heart transplant, the replacement of either your heart or lung with a donor organ

  • Open heart surgery, in which the surgeon cuts open the chest for surgery on the heart

  • Pneumonectomy, the removal of an entire lung

  • Tissue biopsy, to remove a cell or tissue sample and test it for cancer and other diseases

  • Tumor removal

  • Wedge resection, to remove part of a lobe of a lung

Medical Reviewers: William C. Lloyd III, MD, FACS Last Review Date: Sep 6, 2016

© 2016 Healthgrades Operating Company, Inc. All rights reserved. May not be reproduced or reprinted without permission from Healthgrades Operating Company, Inc. Use of this information is governed by the Healthgrades User Agreement.

View Sources

Medical References

Pile, JC. Evaluating postoperative fever: A focused approach. Cleveland Clinic Journal of Medicine. 2006;73 (Suppl 1):S62.
Preparing For Your Thoracotomy. University of Michigan.
Thoracotomy. Aurora Healthcare.
Thoracotomy. Merck Manual For Healthcare Professionals.
Thoracotomy. Thoracic Surgery Associates, PC.

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