• <div class="section1"> Definition

    Also known as pleural fluid analysis, thoracentesis is a procedure that removes fluid or air from the chest through a needle or tube.


    The lungs are lined on the outside with two thin layers of tissue called pleura. The space between these two layers is called the pleural space. Normally, there is only a small amount of lubricating fluid in this space. Liquid and/or air accumulates in this space between the lungs and the ribs from many conditions. The liquid is called a pleural effusion; the air is called a pneumothorax. Most pleural effusions are complications emanating from metastatic malignancy (movement of cancer cells from one part of the body to another). Most malignant pleural effusions are detected and controlled by thoracentesis. Thoracentesis is also performed as a diagnostic measure. In these cases, only small amounts of material need to be withdrawn.

    Symptoms of a pleural effusion include breathing difficulty, chest pain, fever, weight loss, cough, and edema. Removal of air is often an emergency procedure to prevent suffocation from pressure on the lungs. Negative air pressure within the chest cavity allows normal respiration. The accumulation of air or fluid within the pleural space can eliminate these normal conditions and disrupt breathing and the movement of air within the chest cavity. Fluid removal is performed to reduce the pressure in the pleural space and to analyze the liquid. In addition, thoracentesis was traditionally used to remove blood from the chest cavity. This is rare now that the placement of a thoracostomy tube has proven to be a more effective and safer method.

    Thoracentesis often provides immediate abatement of symptoms. However, fluid often begins to reaccumulate. A majority of patients will ultimately require additional therapy beyond a simple thoracentesis.

    There are two types of liquid in the pleural space, one having more protein in it than the other. More watery liquids are called transudates; thicker fluids are called exudates. On the basis of this difference, the cause of the effusion can more easily be determined.


    Thin, watery fluid oozes into the chest either because back pressure from circulation squeezes it out or because the blood has lost some of its osmotic pressure.

    • Heart failure creates back pressure in the veins as blood must wait to be pumped through the heart.
    • A pulmonary embolism is a blood clot in the lung. It will create back pressure in the blood flow and also damage a part of the lung so that it leaks fluid.
    • Cirrhosis is a sick, scarred liver that both fails to make enough protein for the blood and also restricts the flow of blood through it.
    • Nephrosis is a collection of kidney disorders that change the osmotic pressure of blood and allow liquid to seep into body cavities.
    • Myxedema is a disease caused by too little thyroid hormone.


    Thicker, more viscous fluid is usually due to greater damage to tissues, allowing blood proteins as well as water to seep out.

    • Pneumonia, caused by viruses and by bacteria, damages lung tissue and can open the way for exudates to enter the pleural space.
    • Tuberculosis can infect the pleura as well as the lungs and cause them to leak liquid.
    • Cancers of many types settle in the lungs or the pleura and leak liquids from their surface.
    • Depending upon its size and the amount of damage it has done, a pulmonary embolism can also produce an exudate.
    • Several drugs can damage the lung linings as an unexpected side effect. None of these drugs is commonly used.
    • An esophagus perforated by cancer, trauma, or other conditions can spill liquids and even food into the chest. The irritation creates an exudate in the pleural space.
    • Pancreatic disease can cause massive fluid in the abdomen, which can then find its way into the chest.
    • Pericarditis is an inflammation of the sac that contains the heart. It can ooze fluid from both sides--into the heart's space and into the chest.
    • Radiation to treat cancer or from accidents with radioactive materials can damage the pleura and lead to exudates.
    • A wide variety of autoimmune diseases attacks the pleura. Among these are rheumatoid arthritis and systemic lupus erythematosus (SLE).
    • Many other rare conditions can also lead to exudates.


    Blood in the chest (hemothorax) is infrequently seen outside of two conditions:

    • major trauma can sever blood vessels in the chest, causing them to bleed into the pleural space
    • cancers can ooze blood as well as fluid, they do not usually bleed massively


    Occasionally, the liquid that comes out of the chest is neither transparent nor bloody, but milky. This is due to a tear of the large lymphatic channel--the thoracic duct carrying lymph fluid from the intestines to the heart. It is milky because it is transporting fats absorbed in the process of digestion. The major causes of chylothorax are:

    • injury from major trauma, such as an automobile accident
    • cancers eroding into the thoracic duct


    Air in the pleural space is called pneumothorax. Air can enter the pleural space either directly through a hole between the ribs or from a hole in the lungs. Holes in the lungs are sometimes spontaneous, sometimes traumatic, and sometimes the result of disease opening a communication to the air in the lung.


    Care must be taken not to puncture the lung when inserting the needle. Thoracentesis should never be performed by inserting the needle through an area with an infection. An alternative site needs to be found in these cases. Patients who are on anticoagulant drugs should be carefully considered for the procedure.


    The usual place to tap the chest is below the armpit (axilla). Under sterile conditions and local anesthesia, a needle, a through-the-needle-catheter, or an over-the-needle catheter may be used to perform the procedure. Overall, the catheter techniques may be safer. Fluid or air is withdrawn. Fluid is sent to the laboratory for analysis. If the air or fluid continue to accumulate, a tube is left in place and attached to a one-way system so that it can drain without sucking air into the chest.


    The location of the fluid is pinpointed through x ray or ultrasound. Ultrasound is a more accurate method when the effusion is small. A sedative may be administered in some cases but is generally not recommended. Oxygen should be given to the patient.


    As long as the tube is in the chest, the patient must lie still. After it is removed, x rays will determine if the effusion or air is reaccumulating%mdash;though some researchers and clinicians believe chest x rays do not need to be performed after routine thoracentesis.


    Reaccumulation of fluid or air is a possible complications, as are hypovolemic shock (shock caused by a lack of circulating blood) and infection. Patients are at increased risk for poor outcomes if they have a recent history of anticoagulant use, have very small effusions, have significant amounts of fluid, have poor health leading into this condition, have positive airway pressure, and have adhesions in the pleural space. A pneumothorax can sometimes be caused by the thoracentesis procedure. The use of ultrasound to guide the procedure can reduce the risk of pneumothorax.

    Thoracentesis can also result in hemothorax, or bleeding within the thorax. In addition, such internal structures as the diaphragm, spleen, or liver, can be damaged by needle insertion. Repeat thoracenteses can increase the risk of developing hypoproteinemia (a decrease in the amount of protein in the blood).

    Source: The Gale Group. Gale Encyclopedia of Medicine, 3rd ed.

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