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Left-sided Pleural Effusion.jpg
Chest X-ray showing a left-sided pleural effusion (right side of image). This can be treated with thoracentesis.
ICD-9-CM 34.91
Other codes OPCS-4.2 T12.3
MedlinePlus 003420

Thoracentesis /ˌθɔːrəsɪnˈtsɪs/ , also known as thoracocentesis (from the Greek θώραξthōrax "chest, thorax"— GEN thōrakos—and κέντησιςkentēsis "pricking, puncture"), pleural tap, needle thoracostomy, or needle decompression (often used term) is an invasive medical procedure to remove fluid or air from the pleural space for diagnostic or therapeutic purposes. A cannula, or hollow needle, is carefully introduced into the thorax, generally after administration of local anesthesia. The procedure was first performed by Morrill Wyman in 1850 and then described by Henry Ingersoll Bowditch in 1852. [1]


The recommended location varies depending upon the source. Some sources recommend the midaxillary line, in the eighth, ninth, or tenth intercostal space. [2] Whenever possible, the procedure should be performed under ultrasound guidance, which has shown to reduce complications. [3] [4] [5]

Tension pneumothorax is a medical emergency that requires emergent needle decompression before a chest tube is placed. [6] [7]


The illustration shows a person having thoracentesis. The person sits upright and leans on a table. Excess fluid from the pleural space is drained into a bag. Thoracentesis.jpg
The illustration shows a person having thoracentesis. The person sits upright and leans on a table. Excess fluid from the pleural space is drained into a bag.
Instruments for thoracocentesis and needle biopsy of the pleura. Needle biopsy of the pleura.PNG
Instruments for thoracocentesis and needle biopsy of the pleura.

This procedure is indicated when unexplained fluid accumulates in the chest cavity outside the lung. In more than 90% of cases analysis of pleural fluid yields clinically useful information. If a large amount of fluid is present, then this procedure can also be used therapeutically to remove that fluid and improve patient comfort and lung function.

The most common causes of pleural effusions are cancer, congestive heart failure, pneumonia, and recent surgery. In countries where tuberculosis is common, this is also a common cause of pleural effusions.

When cardiopulmonary status is compromised (i.e. when the fluid or air has its repercussions on the function of heart and lungs), due to air (significant pneumothorax), fluid (pleural fluid) or blood (hemothorax) outside the lung, then this procedure is usually replaced with tube thoracostomy, the placement of a large tube in the pleural space.


An uncooperative patient or a coagulation disorder that cannot be corrected are relative contraindications. [9] Routine measurement of coagulation profiles is generally not indicated, however; when performed by an experienced operator "hemorrhagic complications are infrequent after ultrasound-guided thoracentesis, and attempting to correct an abnormal INR or platelet level before the procedure is unlikely to confer any benefit." [10]

Relative contraindications include cases in which the site of insertion has known bullous disease (e.g. emphysema), use of positive end-expiratory pressure (PEEP, see mechanical ventilation) and only one functioning lung (due to diminished reserve). Traditional expert opinion suggests that the aspiration should not exceed 1L to avoid the possible development of pulmonary edema, but this recommendation is uncertain as the volume removed does not correlate well with this complication. [5]


Major complications are pneumothorax (3–30%), hemopneumothorax, hemorrhage, hypotension (low blood pressure due to a vasovagal response) and reexpansion pulmonary edema.

Minor complications include a dry tap (no fluid return), subcutaneous hematoma or seroma, anxiety, dyspnea and cough (after removing large volume of fluid).

The use of ultrasound for needle guidance can minimize the complication rate. [3] [4] [5]

Follow-up Imaging

While chest X-ray has traditionally been performed to assess for pneumothorax following the procedure, it may no longer be necessary to do so in asymptomatic, non-ventilated persons given the widespread use of ultrasound to guide this procedure. [11]

Interpretation of pleural fluid analysis

Several diagnostic tools are available to determine the etiology of pleural fluid.

Transudate versus exudate

First the fluid is either transudate or exudate.

A transudate is defined as pleural fluid to serum total protein ratio of less than 0.5, pleural fluid to serum LDH ratio > 0.6, and absolute pleural fluid LDH > 200 IU or > 2/3 of the normal.

An exudate is defined as pleural fluid that filters from the circulatory system into lesions or areas of inflammation. Its composition varies but generally includes water and the dissolved solutes of the main circulatory fluid such as blood. In the case of blood it will contain some or all plasma proteins, white blood cells, platelets and (in the case of local vascular damage) red blood cells.




A high amylase level (twice the serum level or the absolute value is greater than 160 Somogy units) in the pleural fluid is indicative of either acute or chronic pancreatitis, pancreatic pseudocyst that has dissected or ruptured into the pleural space, cancer or esophageal rupture.


This is considered low if pleural fluid value is less than 50% of normal serum value. The differential diagnosis for this is:


Normal pleural fluid pH is approximately 7.60. A pleural fluid pH below 7.30 with normal arterial blood pH has the same differential diagnosis as low pleural fluid glucose.

Triglyceride and cholesterol

Chylothorax (fluid from lymph vessels leaking into the pleural cavity) may be identified by determining triglyceride and cholesterol levels, which are relatively high in lymph. A triglyceride level over 110 mg/dl and the presence of chylomicrons indicate a chylous effusion. The appearance is generally milky but can be serous.

The main cause for chylothorax is rupture of the thoracic duct, most frequently as a result of trauma or malignancy (such as lymphoma).

Cell count and differential

The number of white blood cells can give an indication of infection. The specific subtypes can also give clues as to the type on infection. The amount of red blood cells are an obvious sign of bleeding.

Cultures and stains

If the effusion is caused by infection, microbiological culture may yield the infectious organism responsible for the infection, sometimes before other cultures (e.g. blood cultures and sputum cultures) become positive. A Gram stain may give a rough indication of the causative organism. A Ziehl-Neelsen stain may identify tuberculosis or other mycobacterial diseases.


Cytology is an important tool in identifying effusions due to malignancy. The most common causes for pleural fluid are lung cancer, metastasis from elsewhere and pleural mesothelioma. The latter often presents with an effusion. Normal cytology results do not reliably rule out malignancy, but make the diagnosis more unlikely.

Related Research Articles

Pleural cavity Thin fluid-filled space between the two pulmonary pleurae (visceral and parietal) of each lungs

The pleural cavity also known as the pleural space, is the thin fluid-filled space between the two pulmonary pleurae of each lung. A pleura is a serous membrane which folds back onto itself to form a two-layered membranous pleural sac. The outer pleura is attached to the chest wall, but is separated from it by the endothoracic fascia. The inner pleura covers the lungs and adjoining structures, including blood vessels, bronchi and nerves. The pleural cavity can be viewed as a potential space because the two pleurae adhere to each other under all normal conditions.

Pneumothorax Abnormal collection of air in the pleural space that causes an uncoupling of the lung from the chest wall

A pneumothorax is an abnormal collection of air in the pleural space between the lung and the chest wall. Symptoms typically include sudden onset of sharp, one-sided chest pain and shortness of breath. In a minority of cases, a one-way valve is formed by an area of damaged tissue, and the amount of air in the space between chest wall and lungs increases; this is called a tension pneumothorax. This can cause a steadily worsening oxygen shortage and low blood pressure and unless reversed can be fatal. Very rarely, both lungs may be affected by a pneumothorax. It is often called a "collapsed lung", although that term may also refer to atelectasis.

Pleurisy inflammation of the membranes that surround the lungs

Pleurisy, also known as pleuritis, is inflammation of the membranes that surround the lungs and line the chest cavity (pleurae). This can result in a sharp chest pain while breathing. Occasionally the pain may be a constant dull ache. Other symptoms may include shortness of breath, cough, fever or weight loss, depending on the underlying cause.

Pleural effusion Accumulation of excess fluid in the pleural cavity

A pleural effusion is excess fluid that accumulates in the pleural cavity, the fluid-filled space that surrounds the lungs. This excess fluid can impair breathing by limiting the expansion of the lungs. Various kinds of pleural effusion, depending on the nature of the fluid and what caused its entry into the pleural space, are hydrothorax, hemothorax (blood), urinothorax (urine), chylothorax (chyle), or pyothorax (pus) commonly known as pleural empyema. In contrast, a pneumothorax is the accumulation of air in the pleural space, and is commonly called a "collapsed lung".

Exudate Fluid emitted through pores or a wound

An exudate is a fluid emitted by an organism through pores or a wound, a process known as exuding or exudation. Exudate is derived from exude, "to ooze," from the Latin exsūdāre, "to sweat".

Chest tube

A chest tube is a flexible plastic tube that is inserted through the chest wall and into the pleural space or mediastinum. It is used to remove air (pneumothorax), fluid, or pus (empyema) from the intrathoracic space. It is also known as a Bülau drain or an intercostal catheter.

Atelectasis Collapse or closure of a lung resulting in reduced or absent gas exchange

Atelectasis is the collapse or closure of a lung resulting in reduced or absent gas exchange. It is usually unilateral, affecting part or all of one lung. It is a condition where the alveoli are deflated down to little or no volume, as distinct from pulmonary consolidation, in which they are filled with liquid. It is often called a collapsed lung, although that term may also refer to pneumothorax.

Chest radiograph Projection X-ray of the chest

A chest radiograph, called a chest X-ray (CXR), or chest film, is a projection radiograph of the chest used to diagnose conditions affecting the chest, its contents, and nearby structures. Chest radiographs are the most common film taken in medicine.

Hemothorax Blood accumulation in the pleural cavity

A hemothorax is an accumulation of blood within the pleural cavity. The symptoms of a hemothorax include chest pain and difficulty breathing, while the clinical signs include reduced breath sounds on the affected side and a rapid heart rate. Hemothoraces are usually caused by an injury but may occur spontaneously: due to cancer invading the pleural cavity, as a result of a blood clotting disorder, as an unusual manifestation of endometriosis, in response to a collapsed lung, or rarely in association with other conditions.

Hydrothorax pleural effusion containing serous liquid

Hydrothorax is a type of pleural effusion in which transudate accumulates in the pleural cavity. This condition is most likely to develop secondary to congestive heart failure, following an increase in hydrostatic pressure within the lungs. More rarely, hydrothorax can develop in 10% of patients with ascites which is called hepatic hydrothorax. It is often difficult to manage in end-stage liver failure and often fails to respond to therapy.

Chylothorax type of pleural effusion

A chylothorax is an accumulation of lymphatic fluid in the space surrounding the lung. Lymph formed in the digestive system is called chyle and accumulates in the pleural space due to either disruption or obstruction of the thoracic duct. In people on a normal diet, this fluid collection can sometimes be identified by its turbid, milky white appearance, since chyle contains triglycerides. It is important to distinguish a chylothorax from a pseudochylothorax, which has a similar appearance, but is caused by more chronic inflammatory processes, and requires a different treatment.

Lung abscess lung disease characterized by microbial infection which causes a type of liquefactive necrosis of the pulmonary tissue and formation of cavities containing necrotic debris or fluid

Lung abscess is a type of liquefactive necrosis of the lung tissue and formation of cavities containing necrotic debris or fluid caused by microbial infection.

Transudate is extravascular fluid with low protein content and a low specific gravity. It has low nucleated cell counts and the primary cell types are mononuclear cells: macrophages, lymphocytes and mesothelial cells. For instance, an ultrafiltrate of blood plasma is transudate. It results from increased fluid pressures or diminished colloid oncotic forces in the plasma.

Respiratory disease Disease of the respiratory system

Respiratory diseases, or lung diseases, are pathological conditions affecting the organs and tissues that make gas exchange difficult in air-breathing animals. They include conditions of the respiratory tract including the trachea, bronchi, bronchioles, alveoli, pleurae, pleural cavity, and the nerves and muscles of respiration. Respiratory diseases range from mild and self-limiting, such as the common cold, to life-threatening diseases such as bacterial pneumonia, pulmonary embolism, acute asthma, lung cancer, and severe acute respiratory syndromes.

Pericardial effusion pericardium disease that is characterized by an abnormal accumulation of fluid in the pericardial cavity

Pericardial effusion is an abnormal accumulation of fluid in the pericardial cavity. Because of the limited amount of space in the pericardial cavity, fluid accumulation leads to an increased intrapericardial pressure which can negatively affect heart function. A pericardial effusion with enough pressure to adversely affect heart function is called cardiac tamponade. Pericardial effusion usually results from a disturbed equilibrium between the production and re-absorption of pericardial fluid, or from a structural abnormality that allows fluid to enter the pericardial cavity.

Parapneumonic effusion type of pleural effusion

A parapneumonic effusion is a type of pleural effusion that arises as a result of a pneumonia, lung abscess, or bronchiectasis. There are three types of parapneumonic effusions: uncomplicated effusions, complicated effusions, and empyema. Uncomplicated effusions generally respond well to appropriate antibiotic treatment.

Malignant pleural effusion is a condition in which cancer causes an abnormal amount of fluid to collect between the thin layers of tissue (pleura) lining the outside of the lung and the wall of the chest cavity. Lung cancer and breast cancer account for about 50-65% of malignant pleural effusions. Other common causes include pleural mesothelioma and lymphoma.

A thoracostomy is a small incision of the chest wall, with maintenance of the opening for drainage. It is most commonly used for the treatment of a pneumothorax. This is performed by physicians, emergency response nurses, and paramedics, usually via needle thoracostomy, or with a thoracostomy tube.

Subcutaneous emphysema condition occuring when gas or air travels under the skin

Subcutaneous emphysema occurs when gas or air travels under the skin. Subcutaneous refers to the tissue beneath the skin, and emphysema refers to trapped air. Since the air generally comes from the chest cavity, subcutaneous emphysema usually occurs on the chest, neck and face, where it is able to travel from the chest cavity along the fascia. Subcutaneous emphysema has a characteristic crackling-feel to the touch, a sensation that has been described as similar to touching Rice Krispies; This sensation of air under the skin is known as subcutaneous crepitation, a form of Crepitus.

Plural disease occurs in the pleural space, which is the thin fluid-filled area in between the two pulmonary pleurae in the human body, there are several disorders that can occur


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