Thoracotomy: Your Hospital Recovery

Healthcare provider showing woman in hospital bed how to use incentive spirometer.The hospital stay after a thoracotomy (surgery to open the chest wall) varies for each person. It is often a week or longer. Ask your doctor how long you might expect your stay to be.

Immediately After Surgery

You will wake up in a special monitoring unit. When you first wake up from the anesthesia, you may feel groggy, thirsty, or cold. If the breathing tube given to you during surgery remains in place, you won’t be able to talk. Flexible tubes in your chest drain air, blood, and fluid. An IV placed in your arm, hand, or neck gives you fluid and medications. Monitors record your heartbeat and how much oxygen is in your blood. A tube may be placed in your bladder to drain your urine. You may spend 1 or more days in this unit before you’re moved to your hospital room.

Managing Your Pain

As soon as you’re able, a nurse or physical therapist (PT) will help you begin to move around. This is to help improve your muscle strength and blood flow. You’ll be asked to sit up and walk. Pain medications can be given to help prevent pain as you move. A nurse may give you these medications. Or, you may have a special pump called a PCA, for patient-controlled analgesia. This allows you to give yourself pain medication as you need it. You may have received an epidural before surgery. If so, it may remain in place for a few days to give you further pain relief.

Respiratory Therapy

Soon after surgery, a nurse or RT will teach you breathing exercises. These help keep your lungs clear, make your breathing muscles stronger, and help prevent complications. The exercises include incentive spirometry. You’ll put your mouth around a plastic device and inhale as much air as you can. You will also be taught coughing exercises, deep-breathing exercises, and other breathing techniques to do on your own.

Range-of-Motion Exercises

A nurse or PT may teach you range-of-motion exercises. These exercises help stretch and strengthen the muscles on the side where you had surgery. This can help keep your shoulder moving freely. You may also be taught exercises to do at home as you heal.

Going Home

Before you go home, your doctor will review the results of your surgery with you. He or she can also tell you what to expect as you recover. If you need further treatment, you and your doctor will discuss this. You and the doctor will also review the next stage of your treatment plan and schedule follow-up visits. When you’re ready to go home, have an adult family member or friend drive you.