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JSLS. 2000 Oct-Dec;4(4):287-90.

Surgical strategy of complex empyema thoracis.

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The University of Illinois at Chicago, Division of Cardiothoracic Surgery, USA.



The optimal treatment of empyema thoracis has been widely debated. Proponents of pleural drainage alone, drainage plus fibrinolytic therapy, video-assisted thoracoscopic surgical (VATS) debridement, and open thoracotomy each champion the efficacy of their approach.


This study examines treatment of complex empyema thoracis between June 1, 1994, and April 30, 1997. Twenty-one men and 9 women underwent 30 drainage/decortication procedures (14 open thoracotomies and 16 VATS) in treatment of their disease. Effusion etiology was distributed as follows: infectious-14; neoplastic-associated-7; traumatic-3; other-6.


The mean preoperative hospital stay was 14 +/- 8.8 days, (11.4 +/- 6.5 days for VATS vs 16.8 +/- 10.2 days for thoracotomy). Hospital stay from operation to discharge for thoracotomy patients was 10.0 -/+ 7.2 days (median 8.5 days) and for VATS patients 17.6 -/+ 16.8 days (median 11 days). These differences were not statistically significant. Duration of postoperative thoracostomy tube drainage was 8.3 -/+ 4.6 days for thoracotomy patients and 4.7 -/+ 2.8 days in the VATS group (p = 0.01). Operative time for the thoracotomy group was 125.0 -/+ 71.7 minutes, while the VATS group time was only 76.2 -/+ 30.7 minutes. Estimated blood loss for the thoracotomy group was 313.9 -/+ 254.0 milliliters and for the VATS group 131.6 -/+ 77.3 milliliters. Three of the 30 patients (10.0%) required prolonged ventilator support (>24 hours). Morbidity included one diaphragmatic laceration (VATS group) and one thoracic duct laceration (thoracotomy). Two VATS procedures (6.7%) required conversion to open thoracotomy for thorough decortication.


The surgical approach to empyema thoracis is evolving. In the absence of comorbid factors, the significantly lower requirement for chest tube drainage time in the VATS patients suggests that this modality is an attractive alternative to thoracotomy in the treatment of complex empyema thoracis.

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