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Am J Med Sci. 2003 Jul;326(1):9-14.

Surgical versus nonsurgical treatment of empyema thoracis: an outcomes analysis.

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Department of Surgery, Baylor College of Medicine, Houston, Texas, USA.



Empyema thoracis (ET) is associated with substantial morbidity and mortality. The optimal means for draining the pleural space remains controversial but there may be increasing bias for less invasive strategies. This study compared outcome after a nonsurgical versus a surgical approach to ET.


Patients with ET over a 10-year period (n = 93) were reviewed and stratified into nonsurgical (thoracentesis and/or closed tube thoracostomy) and surgical (thoracotomy, decortication, and/or open window thoracostomy) groups based on pleural drainage techniques. Hospital course was analyzed except when altered by death (n = 12), noncompliance (n = 3), or severe comorbidities (n = 3).


Seventy-five patients were stratified into nonsurgical (n = 32) and surgical (n = 43) groups. Demographics, comorbidities, signs and symptoms, and causative organisms were similar between groups. Mortality did not significantly differ in nonsurgical (16%) versus surgical (10%) groups (P = 0.7). Although delay in diagnosis and number of therapeutic interventions were nearly identical, the time to definitive therapy was longer in the surgical versus the nonsurgical group (18 +/- 3.8 versus 8.5 +/- 3.8 days, P = 0.023). The time to discharge after definitive therapy (20.0 +/- 3.5 versus 35.6 +/- 14.0 days, P < 0.001), and overall hospital stay (40.6 +/- 5.3 versus 47.4 +/- 15 days, P = 0.01) was significantly decreased in the surgical versus nonsurgical treatment groups, respectively.


The treatment of ET is complex. Failure to adequately evacuate the pleural space and/or persistent signs of infection should prompt surgical intervention. Surgical therapy is preferred for advanced stages of ET. Delaying definitive surgical treatment is largely responsible for prolonging hospital course.

[Indexed for MEDLINE]

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