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Am J Surg. 2000 Dec;180(6):507-11.

Optimal management of complicated empyema.

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Department of Surgery, Denver Health Medical Center and the University of Colorado Health Sciences Center, Denver, Colorado, USA.



Despite continued improvement in medical therapy, empyema remains a challenging problem for the surgeon. Multiple treatment options are available; however, the optimal therapeutic management has not been elucidated.


A retrospective review was performed of all adult patients admitted to Denver Health Medical Center between January 1, 1993, and December 31, 1998, with the diagnosis of empyema. Data tabulated included patient demographics, presentation, chest computed tomography (CT) findings, treatment, and outcome.


Empyema was diagnosed in 58 patients, 45 cases of which were multiloculated at the time of presentation. Empyema was secondary to pneumonia is 41 patients and posttraumatic in 15. In addition to antibiotic therapy, initial treatment included chest tube drainage alone (n = 6), chest tube drainage with primary operation (n = 19), and chest tube drainage with intrapleural fibrinolytic therapy (n = 33). In 15 patients (45%), fibrinolytic therapy failed. Initial chest CT revealed a pleural peel in 5 patients treated with fibrinolytics and all failed. Multiloculation, however, was not a factor in failure of fibrinolysis. Moreover, chest CT missed the presence of a pleural peel in 17 of 31 patients documented to have a significant peel at the time of thoracotomy.


Multiple therapeutic options are available for the management of empyema. Multiloculation is not a contraindication to an initial trial of chest tube drainage or fibrinolytic therapy. In contrast, CT evidence of a pleural peel uniformly predicted failure of nonoperative treatment.

[Indexed for MEDLINE]

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