Background: Surgeons treat air leaks differently. Our goal was to evaluate whether it is better to place chest tubes on suction or water seal for stopping air leaks after pulmonary surgery. A second goal was to evaluate a new classification system for air leaks that we developed.
Methods: Patients were prospectively randomized before surgery to receive suction or water seal to their chest tubes on postoperative day (POD) #2. Air leaks were described and quantified daily by a classification system and a leak meter. The air-leak meter scored leaks from 1 (least) to 7 (greatest). The group randomized to water seal stayed on water seal unless a pneumothorax developed.
Results: On POD #2, 33 of 140 patients had an air leak. Eighteen patients had been preoperatively randomized to water seal and 15 to suction. Air leaks resolved in 12 (67%) of the water seal patients by the morning of POD #3. All 6 patients whose air leak did not stop had a leak that was 4/7 or greater (p < 0.0001) on the leak meter. Of the 15 patients randomized to suction, only 1 patient's air leak (7%) resolved by the morning of POD #3. The randomization aspect of the trial was ended and statistical analysis showed water seal was superior (p = 0.001). The remaining 14 patients were then placed to water seal and by the morning of POD #4, 13 patients' leaks had stopped. Of the 32 total patients placed to seal, 7 (22%) developed a pneumothorax and 6 of these 7 patients had leaks that were 4/7 or greater (p = 0.001).
Conclusions: Placing chest tubes on water seal seems superior to wall suction for stopping air leaks after pulmonary resection. However, water seal does not stop expiratory leaks that are 4/7 or greater. Pneumothorax may occur when chest tubes are placed on seal with leaks this large.