Background: Perforation of the thoracic esophagus is a formidable challenge. Treatment and outcome are largely determined by the time to presentation. We reviewed our experience with esophageal perforations to determine the overall mortality and whether the time to presentation should influence management strategy.
Methods: A retrospective chart review was performed on all patients treated for perforation of the thoracic esophagus from 1990 to 2001. There were 26 patients (14 men and 12 women; median age, 62 years; range, 36 to 89 years). Fourteen patients presented within 24 hours (early), and 12 patients presented after 24 hours (delayed). Nine of the 12 patients in the delayed group presented after 72 hours. The causes of the perforations were as follows: instrumentation (19 patients), Boerhaave's syndrome (2 patients), intraoperative injury (1 patient), and other (4 patients). In the early group, 3 patients were treated conservatively, 10 patients underwent primary repair, and 1 patient required esophagectomy for carcinoma. In the delayed group, 3 patients were treated conservatively, 6 underwent successful repair of the perforation, 1 had a T-tube placement through the perforation and eventually required an esophagectomy, and 2 had an esophagectomy as primary surgical treatment.
Results: Hospital mortality was 3.8% (1 of 26) and morbidity was 38% (10 of 26). Persistent leaks occurred in 3 patients, 2 after primary repair and 1 after T-tube drainage. All patients selected for conservative management successfully healed their perforation.
Conclusions: Primary repair can be carried out in most cases of thoracic esophageal perforation regardless of time to presentation, with a low mortality rate. A small but carefully selected group of patients may be treated successfully without operation. Esophagectomy should be reserved for patients with carcinoma or extensive necrosis of the esophagus.