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The mediastinum is the area in the middle of the chest between the lungs. A mediastinotomy is the creation of a small opening in the upper chest into the mediastinum. This opening allows the doctor to examine the area between and in front of the lungs.

The Lungs (Cut-away View)

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Reasons for Procedure
This procedure is done to examine the lungs and chest. Your doctor might take tissue samples ( biopsy ). These samples are examined under a microscope to check for diseases like:

  • Cancer of the lungs , bronchi, and chest tissue
  • Lymphoma—cancer in the lymphatic system, such as Hodgkin’s disease
  • Infection
  • Inflammation
  • Sarcoidosis —a condition that causes inflammation in organs like the lungs, liver, lymph nodes, and spleen
Mediastinotomy is also done to find out if lung cancer has spread.

Possible Complications
Problems from the procedure are rare, but all procedures have some risk. Your doctor will review potential problems, like:

  • Bleeding
  • Infection
  • Hoarseness
  • Chylothorax—leakage of lymphatic fluid into the chest
  • Damage to organs in the chest
  • Pneumothorax (collapsed lung)
Before your procedure, talk to your doctor about ways to manage factors that may increase your risk of complications such as:

What to Expect
Prior to the Procedure
You will be asked to stop eating and drinking for 8-10 hours before the procedure.

You may be asked to stop taking some medications up to one week before the procedure, like:

  • Anti-inflammatory drugs
  • Blood thinners
  • Antiplatelet drugs
On the day of the procedure:

  • You will be asked to remove any jewelry, glasses, contact lenses, or dentures.
  • You may be given medications to help you feel sleepy and relaxed.
  • Be sure to tell your doctor if you have any allergies.
  • You will need someone to drive you home after the procedure.
General anesthesia will block any pain and keep you asleep throughout the procedure. Once you are sedated, a breathing tube will be placed in your throat to help you breathe.

Description of the Procedure
  • You will lie on your back on an operating table.
  • Your skin will be cleaned with an antiseptic solution.
  • The doctor will make a small cut in your chest.
  • The doctor will move your muscles aside to examine the space between your lungs and heart.
  • Tissue samples may taken from your lungs, lymph nodes, or other parts of your chest.
  • When the procedure is finished, the opening will be closed with stitches.
  • The wound will be covered with a dressing.
  • Immediately After the Procedure
    After the procedure, you will be taken to the recovery room. If all is well, your breathing tube will be removed. The tissue samples will be sent to the laboratory for testing.

    How Long Will It Take?
    30 minutes to 2 hours

    How Much Will It Hurt?
    Anesthesia will prevent pain during surgery. Pain and discomfort after the procedure can be managed with medications.

    Average Hospital Stay
    This procedure can be done in an outpatient setting or as part of your hospital stay. The usual length of stay is up to 24 hours, if there are no unforeseen complications. Some people may need to stay in the hospital for 1-2 days.

    Post-procedure Care
    At the Hospital
    • You will be taken to the recovery room after the procedure until the anesthetic wears off.
    • Your doctor may order a chest x-ray to check for bleeding or air inside your chest space.
    Preventing Infection
    During your stay, the hospital staff will take steps to reduce your chance of infection, such as:

    • Washing their hands
    • Wearing gloves or masks
    • Keeping your incisions covered
    There are also steps you can take to reduce your chance of infection, such as:

    • Washing your hands often and reminding your healthcare providers to do the same
    • Reminding your healthcare providers to wear gloves or masks
    • Not allowing others to touch your incision
    At Home
    When you return home, do the following to help ensure a smooth recovery:

    • You may feel sleepy for several hours or even 1-2 days following anesthesia. Do not drive during this time.
    • You may have a sore throat from the tube placement.
      • Use throat lozenges.
      • Gargle with warm water.
    • Keep your wound clean and dry.
      • Wash your hands before touching the wound.
      • Use a soft washcloth to gently wipe the wound with soap and water.
      • Change the dressing as instructed by your doctor.
    • Be sure to follow your doctor’s instructions.
    Call Your Doctor
    Call your doctor if any of the following occur:

    • Redness, swelling, pain, or bleeding from the wound
    • Chest pain
    • Swelling in the neck
    • Difficulty swallowing
    • Hoarseness that lasts more than a few days or worsens
    • Shortness of breath
    • Signs of infection, including fever and chills
    • Joint pain, fatigue, stiffness, rash, or other new symptoms
    If you think you have an emergency, call for medical help right away.

    American Cancer Society

    American Lung Association

    Canadian Cancer Society

    Kellicker PG. Lymph node biopsy. EBSCO Health Library website. Available at: Updated November 11, 2010. Accessed May 10, 2010.

    Mason RJ, Broadduss VC, Murray JF, Nadel JA. Murray and Nadel’s Textbook of Respiratory Medicine. 4th ed. 2005: Saunders. Available at: Accessed May 10, 2010.

    Mediastinotomy. Roswell Park Cancer Institute website. Available at: Accessed December 8, 2010.

    Pinto S. Sarcoidosis. EBSCO Nursing Reference Center website. Available at: Published June 29, 2005. Updated November 11, 2008. Accessed May 10, 2010.

    6/6/2011 DynaMed's Systematic Literature Surveillance Mills E, Eyawo O, Lockhart I, Kelly S, Wu P, Ebbert JO. Smoking cessation reduces postoperative complications: a systematic review and meta-analysis. Am J Med. 2011;124(2):144-154.e8.

    Last Reviewed February 2014

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