The pleural space is the space between the inner and outer lining of the lung. It is normally very thin, and lined only with a very small amount of fluid.
If fluid, such as blood, or air, gets into the pleural space, the lung can collapse, preventing adequate air exchange. Chest tubes are used to treat conditions that can cause the lung to collapse, such as:
air leaks from the lung into the chest (pneumothorax)
bleeding into the chest (hemothorax)
after surgery or trauma in the chest (pneumothorax or hemothorax)
lung abscesses or pus in the chest (empyema).
Chest tubes are inserted to drain blood, fluid, or air and allow full expansion of the lungs. The tube is placed in the pleural space. The area where the tube will be inserted is numbed (local anesthesia). The patient may also be sedated. The chest tube is inserted between the ribs into the chest and is connected to a bottle or canister that contains sterile water. Suction is attached to the system to encourage drainage. A stitch (suture) and adhesive tape is used to keep the tube in place.
The chest tube usually remains in place until the X-rays show that all the blood, fluid, or air has drained from the chest and the lung has fully re-expanded. When the chest tube is no longer needed, it can be easily removed, usually without the need for medications to sedate or numb the patient. Medications may be used to prevent or treat infection (antibiotics).
Recovery from the chest tube insertion and removal is usually complete, with only a small scar.
The patient will stay in the hospital until the chest tube is removed. While the chest tube is in place, the nursing staff will carefully check for possible air leaks, breathing difficulties, and need for additional oxygen. Frequent deep breathing and coughing is necessary to help re-expand the lung, assist with drainage, and prevent normal fluids from collecting in the lungs.
Jatin M. Vyas, MD, PhD, Assistant Professor in Medicine, Harvard Medical School; Assistant in Medicine, Division of Infectious Disease, Department of Medicine, Massachusetts General Hospital. Also reviewed by A.D.A.M. Health Solutions, Ebix, Inc., Editorial Team: David Zieve, MD, MHA, Bethanne Black, Stephanie Slon, and Nissi Wang.