A thoracostomy is a small incision of the chest wall, with maintenance of the opening for drainage. It is most commonly used for the treatment of a pneumothorax. This is performed by surgeons, emergency department physicians, and paramedics, usually via needle thoracostomy or with a thoracostomy tube (chest tube).
A thoracostomy is commonly confused with thoracotomy, which is a larger incision commonly used to gain access to organs within the chest.
When air, blood, or other fluids accumulate in the pleural cavity it may be drained by thoracostomy. Whereas air in this space (pneumothorax) may be released by needle thoracostomy, other substances require drainage with a thoracostomy tube.
There are no absolute contraindications to thoracostomy. There are relative contraindications (such as coagulopathies); however, in an emergency setting these are outweighed by the necessity to re-inflate a collapsed lung or drain fluid from the lungs.
Drainage of the pleural cavity is achieved by the surgeon making a primary incision in the skin followed by a second incision through the muscle between the ribs. This way a tube may be guided into the chest to allow for drainage. Chest tubes are designed to collect this drainage and prevent anything from leaking back into the pleural space. This is accomplished by a check valve, usually part of a specialized drainage system with an underwater seal. Depending on the amount of air/fluid to be drained, the collection bottle may need to be periodically changed.
Complications are mostly due to placement technique, inexperience of the physician, and emergent vs. elective circumstances. The most common complications are recurrent pneumothorax (incomplete recovery), infection, and organ injury (due to mechanical damage).