Surgical management of chylothorax

Thorac Cardiovasc Surg. 2009 Jun;57(4):226-8. doi: 10.1055/s-0029-1185457. Epub 2009 May 20.


Background: Chylothorax remains an uncommon but challenging clinical problem. Thoracic duct ligation is the treatment of choice for postsurgical patients. However, the optimal treatment for traumatic patients is unclear. We wanted to examine the outcomes of patients with high output or recurrent chylothorax who were treated by surgical means.

Methods: From December 1992 to April 2008, 29 patients underwent surgical procedures for high output (> 1 L/day) (16) or recurrent chylothorax (13). We analyzed these patients to determine the surgical approach, perioperative complications, and outcomes of the treatment approach.

Results: Of the 29 patients, 12 patients developed chylothorax following esophagectomy, in 5 patients it resulted from lymphoproliferative disorders, in 2 patients following ascending aneurysm repair, in 2 after trauma, in 3 following lung resection, and in 1 patient respectively from coronary artery bypass grafting (CABG), thymectomy for thymoma, vasculitis, and metastatic lung cancer, while 1 patient had no clear etiology. The median age of patients was 61 (range 20-79) years. 22 patients initially underwent thoracic duct ligation, 6 had talc pleurodesis, and one underwent bilateral pleuroperitoneal shunt placement. Approaches for thoracic duct ligation included: right thoracotomy (16), left thoracotomy (3), VATS (2), and right thoracotomy together with laparotomy (1). There were no intraoperative complications or deaths within 30 days or during postoperative hospitalization. The success rate after initial thoracic duct ligation was 95 % (21/22). One patient needed re-exploration after ligation with resolution of chylothorax after the second operation. The success rate after pleurodesis was 83 % (5/6). One patient after pleurodesis needed subsequent thoracic duct ligation for resolution of bilateral chylothoraces. All patients in this series had resolution of chylothorax.

Conclusions: Thoracic duct ligation is the treatment of choice for high output or recurrent chylothorax with a 96 % success rate. Surgical pleurodesis is effective in some cases and may be an option for marginal patients.

MeSH terms

  • Adult
  • Aged
  • Chylothorax / etiology
  • Chylothorax / surgery*
  • Chylothorax / therapy
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Iatrogenic Disease
  • Laparotomy
  • Ligation
  • Male
  • Middle Aged
  • Pleurodesis
  • Reoperation
  • Retrospective Studies
  • Talc / administration & dosage
  • Thoracic Duct / surgery
  • Thoracic Injuries / complications
  • Thoracic Surgery, Video-Assisted
  • Thoracic Surgical Procedures* / adverse effects
  • Thoracotomy
  • Treatment Outcome
  • Young Adult


  • Talc