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Is chest radiography routinely needed after thoracentesis?

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Major causes of pneumothorax in patients undergoing thoracentesis are direct puncture during needle or catheter insertion, the introduction of air through the needle or catheter into the pleural cavity, and the inability of the ipsilateral lung to fully expand after drainage of a large volume of fluid, known as pneumothorax ex vacuo.5

Pneumothorax ex vacuo may be seen in patients with medical conditions such as endobronchial obstruction, pleural scarring from long-standing pleural effusion, and lung malignancy, all of which can impair the lung’s ability to expand after removal of a large volume of pleural fluid. It is believed that transient parenchymal pleural fistulae form if the lung cannot expand, causing air leakage into the pleural cavity.5,8,9 Pleural manometry to monitor changes in pleural pressure and elastance can decrease the rates of pneumothorax ex vacuo in patients with the above risk factors.5


Current literature suggests that imaging to evaluate for postprocedural complications should be done if there is suspicion of a complication, if thoracentesis required multiple attempts, if the procedure caused aspiration of air, if the patient has advanced lung disease, if the patient is scheduled to undergo thoracic radiation, if the patient is on mechanical ventilation, and after therapeutic thoracentesis if a large volume of fluid is removed.1–10 Routine chest radiography after thoracentesis is not supported in the literature in the absence of these risk factors.

Some practitioners order chest imaging after therapeutic thoracentesis to assess for residual pleural fluid and for visualization of other abnormalities previously hidden by pleural effusion, rather than simply to exclude postprocedural pneumothorax. Alternatively, postprocedural bedside pleural ultrasonography with recording of images can be done to assess for complications and residual pleural fluid volume without exposing the patient to radiation.11

Needle decompression and chest tube insertion should be considered in patients with tension pneumothorax, large pneumothorax (distance from the chest wall to the visceral pleural line of at least 2 cm), mechanical ventilation, progressing pneumothorax, and symptoms.


  • Pneumothorax is a rare complication of thoracentesis when performed by a skilled operator using ultrasonographic guidance.
  • Mechanisms behind the occurrence of pneumothorax are direct lung puncture, introduction of air into the pleural cavity, and pneumothorax ex vacuo.
  • In asymptomatic patients, pneumothorax after thoracentesis rarely requires intervention beyond supportive care and close observation.
  • Factors such as multiple thoracentesis attempts, symptoms, clinical suspicion, air aspiration during thoracentesis, presence of previous lung disease, and removal of a large volume of fluid may require postprocedural lung imaging (eg, bedside ultrasonography, radiography).

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