Chylothorax: an assessment of current surgical management

J Thorac Cardiovasc Surg. 1985 Feb;89(2):221-7.


The development of chylothorax is a serious and often life-threatening clinical entity. Optimal management of this problem has not been well defined to date. We reviewed our experience with chylothorax in patients of all ages during the past 10 years. Ages ranged from 2 days to 69 years. The etiologies were traumatic in 17 and congenital or idiopathic in three. Six patients (five infants) were treated nonoperatively with either repeated thoracenteses or chest tube drainage. Fourteen patients (11 infants) underwent operative treatment: transthoracic thoracic duct ligation (five patients), pleuroperitoneal shunting (seven), pleuroperitoneal shunting combined with reoperation on a patient with congenital heart disease (one), and reoperation alone on a patient with congenital heart disease (one). Duration of preoperative therapy ranged from 9 days to 2 months (average 3.3 weeks). Five of six (83.3%) patients treated nonoperatively died. Of the surgically treated group, only two of 14 (14.3%) died, and 11 of the 12 survivors had resolution of the chylothorax and immediate clinical improvement. Our experience suggests that both pediatric and adult patients respond poorly to nonoperative treatment of chylothorax and that this treatment has a high mortality rate. Post-traumatic and congenital chylothorax should be treated operatively after a limited trial (1 to 2 weeks) of nonoperative therapy. Pleuroperitoneal shunting may offer a reasonable and effective alternative to thoracotomy and thoracic duct ligation.

MeSH terms

  • Adolescent
  • Adult
  • Aged
  • Child
  • Child, Preschool
  • Chylothorax / diagnostic imaging
  • Chylothorax / etiology
  • Chylothorax / surgery*
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Infant
  • Infant, Newborn
  • Ligation
  • Male
  • Middle Aged
  • Peritoneovenous Shunt
  • Pneumonectomy
  • Radiography
  • Thoracic Duct / surgery