Ultrasound-guided thoracentesis: is it a safer method?

Chest. 2003 Feb;123(2):418-23. doi: 10.1378/chest.123.2.418.


Study objectives: The objectives of this study are as follows: (1) to determine the incidence of complications from thoracentesis performed under ultrasound guidance by interventional radiologists in a tertiary referral teaching hospital; (2) to evaluate the incidence of vasovagal events without the use of atropine prior to thoracentesis; and (3) to evaluate patient or radiographic factors that may contribute to, or be predictive of, the development of re-expansion pulmonary edema after ultrasound-guided thoracentesis.

Design: Prospective descriptive study.

Setting: Saint Thomas Hospital, a tertiary referral teaching hospital in Nashville, TN.

Patients: All patients referred to interventional radiology for diagnostic and/or therapeutic ultrasound-guided thoracentesis between August 1997 and September 2000.

Results: A total of 941 thoracenteses in 605 patients were performed during the study period. The following complications were recorded: pain (n = 25; 2.7%), pneumothorax (n = 24; 2.5%), shortness of breath (n = 9; 1.0%), cough (n = 8; 0.8%), vasovagal reaction (n = 6; 0.6%), bleeding (n = 2; 0.2%), hematoma (n = 2; 0.2%), and re-expansion pulmonary edema (n = 2; 0.2%). Eight patients with pneumothorax received tube thoracostomies (0.8%). When > 1,100 mL of fluid were removed, the incidence of pneumothorax requiring tube thoracostomy and pain was increased (p < 0.05). Fifty-seven percent of patients with shortness of breath during the procedure were noted to have pneumothorax on postprocedure radiographs, while 16% of patients with pain were noted to have pneumothorax on postprocedure radiographs. Vasovagal reactions occurred in 0.6% despite no administration of prophylactic atropine. Re-expansion pulmonary edema complicated 2 of 373 thoracenteses (0.5%) in which > 1,000 mL of pleural fluid were removed.

Conclusions: The complication rate with thoracentesis performed by interventional radiologists under ultrasound guidance is lower than that reported for non-image-guided thoracentesis. Premedication with atropine is unnecessary given the low incidence of vasovagal reactions. Re-expansion pulmonary edema is uncommon even when > 1,000 mL of pleural fluid are removed, as long as the procedure is stopped when symptoms develop.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Chest Tubes
  • Cough / etiology
  • Hospitals, Teaching
  • Humans
  • Pleural Effusion / diagnostic imaging
  • Pleural Effusion / surgery*
  • Pneumothorax / etiology
  • Postoperative Complications / etiology*
  • Prospective Studies
  • Pulmonary Edema / etiology
  • Risk
  • Safety
  • Syncope, Vasovagal / etiology*
  • Tennessee
  • Thoracostomy* / adverse effects
  • Ultrasonography, Interventional* / adverse effects