Health Information and Tools > Patient Care Handouts >  Thoracotomy: Before Your Surgery
Facebook Tweet Email Share

Main Content

Thoracotomy: Before Your Surgery

What is a thoracotomy?

A thoracotomy (say "thor-uh-KAW-tuh-mee") is surgery done through a cut (incision) in the chest wall between the ribs. The doctor is able to operate inside the chest through this incision. A thoracotomy may be used for surgery on the lungs, esophagus, trachea, heart, aorta, or diaphragm. The exact placement of the incision depends on the reason for the surgery. It is usually across the side of the mid-chest.

In order to spread the ribs far enough to do the surgery, your doctor may need to cut through a rib or the breastbone (sternum). When the surgery is finished, the doctor will close the incision with stitches or staples. If a rib or the breastbone was cut, the doctor will use wire to hold the pieces of bone together as they heal.

Most people spend 3 to 7 days in the hospital after this type of surgery. You will be quite sore after chest surgery. You will get medicine to help with this. Even though you will be sore, it is very important to breathe deeply and be as active as possible after surgery. This will help your lungs expand again and help you heal more quickly. It is important not to smoke after surgery.

The amount of time you will need to recover at home depends on the type of surgery you had. You will probably need to take at least 1 to 2 months off work.

Follow-up care is a key part of your treatment and safety. Be sure to make and go to all appointments, and call your doctor or nurse call line if you are having problems. It's also a good idea to know your test results and keep a list of the medicines you take.

How do you prepare for surgery?

Surgery can be stressful. This information will help you understand what you can expect. And it will help you safely prepare for surgery.

Preparing for surgery

  • Be sure you have someone to take you home. Anesthesia and pain medicine will make it unsafe for you to drive or get home on your own.
  • Understand exactly what surgery is planned, along with the risks, benefits, and other options.
  • If you take aspirin or some other blood thinner, ask your doctor if you should stop taking it before your surgery. Make sure that you understand exactly what your doctor wants you to do. These medicines increase the risk of bleeding.
  • Tell your doctor ALL the medicines and natural health products you take. Some may increase the risk of problems during your surgery. Your doctor will tell you if you should stop taking any of them before the surgery and how soon to do it.
  • Make sure your doctor and the hospital have a copy of your advance care plan. If you don't have one, you may want to prepare one. It lets others know your health care wishes. It's a good thing to have before any type of surgery or procedure.

Having surgery can be stressful. This information will help you understand what you can expect and how to safely prepare for surgery.

What happens on the day of surgery?

  • Follow the instructions exactly about when to stop eating and drinking, or your surgery may be cancelled. If your doctor has instructed you to take your medicines on the day of surgery, please do so using only a sip of water.
  • Take a bath or shower before you come in for your surgery. Do not apply lotions, perfumes, deodorants, or nail polish.
  • Do NOT shave the surgical site yourself.
  • Remove all jewellery, piercings, and contact lenses.
  • Leave your valuables at home.

At the hospital or surgery centre

  • Bring a picture ID.
  • Before surgery you will be asked to repeat your full name, what surgery you are having, and what part of your body is being operated on. The area for surgery may be marked.
  • A small tube (IV) will be placed in a vein, to give you fluids and medicine to help you relax. Because of the combination of medicines given to keep you comfortable, you may not remember much about the operating room.
  • You will be kept comfortable and safe by your anesthesia provider. You will be asleep during the surgery.
  • The surgery will take about 2 to 4 hours.
  • You may stay in the ICU for the first 1 or 2 days after surgery.
  • As you wake up in the recovery room, the nurse will check to be sure you are stable and comfortable. It is important for you to tell your doctor and nurse how you feel and ask questions about any concerns you may have.
  • You will have a tube down your throat during surgery to help you breathe. This will probably be removed before you are fully awake.
  • You will probably have one or two tubes coming out of your chest to drain fluid and air so that your lungs can expand again after surgery. The chest tubes will be removed before you go home.
  • You will have a tube in your vein, called an IV, to give you fluids and medicines.
  • You may have a tube in your wrist, called an arterial line, to measure your blood pressure.
  • You may have a tube that drains urine from your bladder (urinary catheter) for a few days.
  • You may have an epidural catheter, which is a tiny tube that delivers pain medicine directly into the area in your back around your spinal cord. The epidural will help prevent pain after surgery.

Going home

  • Be sure you have someone to drive you home.
  • Ask your doctor when you can drive again.
  • Arrange for extra help at home after surgery, especially if you live alone or provide care for another person.
  • You will be given more specific instructions about recovering from your surgery, including activity and when you may return to work.

When should you call your doctor?

  • You have questions or concerns.
  • You don't understand how to prepare for your surgery.
  • You become ill before the surgery (such as fever, flu, or a cold).
  • You need to reschedule or have changed your mind about having the surgery.

Where can you learn more?

Go to https://www.healthwise.net/patientEd

Enter H698 in the search box to learn more about "Thoracotomy: Before Your Surgery".

Care instructions adapted under license by your healthcare professional. If you have questions about a medical condition or this instruction, always ask your healthcare professional. Healthwise, Incorporated disclaims any warranty or liability for your use of this information.