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Am J Surg. 1992 Nov;164(5):532-4; discussion 534-5.

Conservative versus surgical management of chylothorax.

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Department of Surgery, St. Louis University Medical Center, Missouri 63110-0250.


Chylothorax is a potentially life-threatening disorder that has profound respiratory, nutritional, and immunologic consequences. Treatment for this problem is controversial, and the results have been variable. From 1985 to 1990, 29 patients (16 males, 13 females; mean age: 20.1 years; range: 5 days to 76.8 years) were diagnosed as having chylothorax (18 right, 6 left, 5 bilateral). Etiologies included surgical trauma (26) and nonsurgical trauma (3). Initial conservative treatment consisted of tube thoracostomy drainage (mean duration: 13.3 days; range: 1 to 62 days; mean total volume: 4,030 mL) and dietary modification (low-fat diet, total parenteral nutrition). This resulted in resolution of the chylothorax in 23 patients (79% success), although 2 patients died of unrelated causes while hospitalized (myocardial infarction and cardiopulmonary arrest). Five adult patients and one infant (21%) required ligation of the thoracic duct, with resolution of the chylothorax in all six (100% success). Despite successful duct closure, one infant died of respiratory failure unrelated to the operation, and one adult died as the result of a cerebrovascular accident 6 weeks postoperatively, yielding an operative mortality of 33% and an overall mortality of 14% (4 of 29). Our experience demonstrates that initial treatment of chylothorax with thoracostomy drainage and dietary modification is successful in the majority of patients and is not associated with high morbidity or mortality rates. Surgical intervention for chylothoraces that fail to respond to initial conservative measures will be required in a minority of patients but appears to be associated with a higher risk of complications.

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