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Is chest radiography routinely needed after thoracentesis?

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No. After thoracentesis, chest radiography or another lung imaging study should be done only if pneumothorax is suspected, if thoracentesis requires more than 1 attempt, if the patient is on mechanical ventilation or has pre-existing lung disease, or if a large volume (> 1,500 mL) of fluid is removed. Radiography is also usually not necessary after diagnostic thoracentesis in a patient breathing spontaneously. In most cases, pneumothorax found incidentally after thoracentesis does not require decompression and can be managed supportively.

WHAT ARE THE RISKS OF THORACENTESIS?

Thoracentesis is a minimally invasive procedure usually performed at the bedside that involves insertion of a needle into the pleural cavity for drainage of fluid.1 Diagnostic thoracentesis should be done in most cases of a new pleural effusion unless the effusion is small and with a clear diagnosis, or in cases of typical heart failure.

Therapeutic thoracentesis, often called large-volume thoracentesis, aims to improve symptoms such as dyspnea attributed to the pleural effusion by removing at least 1 L of pleural fluid. The presence of active respiratory symptoms and suspicion of infected pleural effusion should lead to thoracentesis as soon as possible.

Complications of thoracentesis may be benign, such as pain and anxiety associated with the procedure and external bleeding at the site of needle insertion. Pneumothorax is the most common serious procedural complication and the principal reason to order postprocedural chest radiography.1 Less common complications include hemothorax, re-expansion pulmonary edema, infection, subdiaphragmatic organ puncture, and procedure-related death. Bleeding complications and hemothorax are rare even in patients with underlying coagulopathy.2

Point-of-care pleural ultrasonography is now considered the standard of care to guide optimal needle location for the procedure and to exclude other conditions that can mimic pleural effusion on chest radiography, such as lung consolidation and atelectasis.3 High proficiency in the use of preprocedural point-of-care ultrasonography reduces the rate of procedural complications, though it does not eliminate the risk entirely.3,4

Factors associated with higher rates of complications include lack of operator proficiency, poor understanding of the anatomy, poor patient positioning, poor patient cooperation with the procedure, lack of availability of bedside ultrasonography, and drainage of more than 1,500 mL of fluid. Addressing these factors has been shown to decrease the risk of pneumothorax and infection.1–5

HOW OFTEN DOES PNEUMOTHORAX OCCUR AFTER THORACENTESIS?

Several early studies have examined the incidence of pneumothorax after thoracentesis. Lack of ultrasonography use likely explains a higher incidence of complications in early studies: rates of pneumothorax after thoracentesis without ultrasonographic guidance ranged from 5.2% to 26%.6,7

Gervais et al8 analyzed thoracentesis with ultrasonographic guidance in 434 patients, 92 of whom were intubated, and reported that pneumothorax occurred in 10 patients, of whom 6 were intubated. Two of the intubated patients required chest tubes. Other studies have confirmed the low incidence of pneumothorax in patients undergoing thoracentesis, with rates such as 0.61%,1 5%,9 and 4%.10

The major predictor of postprocedural pneumothorax was the presence of symptoms such as chest pain and dyspnea. No intervention was necessary for most cases of pneumothorax in asymptomatic patients. The more widespread use of procedural ultrasonography may explain some discrepancies between the early5,6 and more recent studies.1,8–10

Several studies have demonstrated that postprocedural radiography is unnecessary unless a complication is suspected based on the patient’s symptoms or the need to demonstrate lung re-expansion.1,4,9,10 Clinical suspicion and the patient’s symptoms are the major predictors of procedure-related pneumothorax requiring treatment with a chest tube. Otherwise, incidentally discovered pneumothorax can usually be observed and managed supportively.

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