Video-Assisted Thoracic Surgery
Medically reviewed on October 21, 2016
What is the test?
Video-assisted thoracic surgery (VATS) is a type of surgery that enables doctors to view the inside of the chest cavity after making only very small incisions. The doctor can examine the outside surface of the lung and the inner surface of the chest wall through a camera attached to the scope. Abnormal appearing areas on the lung surface can be biopsied.
VATS also provides relatively easy access to taking a biopsy of the lung. This may be needed to diagnose the cause of abnormalities on a chest x-ray or to determine the specific infectious agent responsible for pneumonia that is not getting better on antibiotics.
How do I prepare for the test?
Discuss the specific procedures planned during your chest surgery ahead of time with your doctor. VATS is done by either a surgeon or a trained pulmonary specialist. You will need to sign a consent form giving the surgeon permission to perform this test. Talk to your doctor about whether you will stay in the hospital for any time after the procedure, so that you can plan for this.
You may need to have tests called pulmonary function tests before this surgery, to make sure that you can recover well.
If you are taking insulin, discuss this with your doctor before the test. If you take aspirin, nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs, or other medicines that affect blood clotting, talk with your doctor. It may be necessary to stop or adjust the dose of these medicines before your test.
You will be told not to eat anything for at least eight hours before the surgery. An empty stomach helps prevent the nausea that can be a side effect of anesthesia medicines.
Before the surgery (sometimes on the same day), you will meet with an anesthesiologist to go over your medical history (including medicines and allergies) and to discuss the anesthesia.
What happens when the test is performed?
VATS is done in an operating room. You wear a hospital gown and have an IV (intravenous) line placed in your arm so that you can receive medicines through it.
VATS is usually done with general anesthesia, which puts you to sleep so you are unconscious during the procedure. General anesthesia is administered by an anesthesiologist, who asks you to breathe a mixture of gases through a mask. After the anesthetic takes effect, a tube is put down your throat to help you breathe. Your anesthesiologist can use this tube to make you breathe using only one of your lungs. This way the other lung can be completely deflated and allow the surgeon a full view of your chest cavity on that side during the procedure.
If VATS is being used only to evaluate a problem on the inside of the rib cage (not the lung itself), then it can sometimes be done using regional anesthesia. With regional anesthesia, you are not asleep during the surgery, but are given medicines that make you very groggy and that keep you from feeling pain in the chest. This is done with either a spinal block or an epidural block, in which an anesthesiologist injects the anesthetic through a needle or tube in your back or neck. You do your own breathing with this type of anesthesia, but one of your lungs will be partly collapsed to allow the doctors to move instruments between the lung and the chest wall.
You spend the surgery lying on your side. A very small incision (less than an inch long) is made, usually between your seventh and eighth ribs. Carbon dioxide gas is allowed to flow into your chest through this opening, while your lung on that side is made to partly or completely collapse. A tiny camera on a tube, called a thoracoscope, is then inserted through the opening. Your doctor can see the work he or she is doing by watching a video screen.
If you are having a procedure more complicated than inspection of the chest and lung, the doctor makes one or two other small incisions to allow additional instruments to reach into your chest. These additional incisions are usually made in a curving line along your lower rib cage. A wide variety of instruments are useful in VATS. These include instruments that can cut away a section of your lung and seal the hole left in your lung using small staples, instruments that can burn away scar tissue, and tools to remove small biopsy samples such as lymph nodes from your chest.
At the end of your surgery, the instruments are removed, the lung is re-inflated, and all but one of the small incisions are stitched closed. For most patients, a tube (called a chest tube) is placed through the remaining opening to help drain any leaking air or fluid that collects after the surgery.
If you are having general anesthesia, it is stopped so that you can wake up within a few minutes of your VATS being finished, although you will remain drowsy for a while afterward.
What risks are there from the test?
It is easier for patients to recover from VATS compared with regular chest surgery (often called "open" surgery) because the wounds from the incisions are much smaller. You will have a small straight scar (less than an inch long) wherever the instruments were inserted.
There are some potentially serious risks from VATS surgery. Air leaks from the lung that don't heal up quickly can keep you in the hospital a longer time and occasionally require additional treatment. Less than one percent of patients have significant bleeding requiring a transfusion or larger operation. There are also the risks related to anesthesia.
A less serious complication is pain in the chest or shoulder for a few days caused by irritation of the diaphragm and chest wall from the procedure.
Sometimes, especially if cancer is diagnosed, your doctors will decide that you need a larger surgery to treat your problem in the safest manner possible. Your doctors might discuss this option with you ahead of time. That way, if necessary, the doctors can change over to a larger incision and do open chest surgery while you are still under anesthesia.
Death from complications of VATS surgery occurs very rarely, and much less frequently than with open chest surgery.
Must I do anything special after the test is over?
Most patients stay in the hospital for at least one day after a VATS procedure to recover from the surgery. Most patients have a chest tube left in the chest for a few days, to help drain out leaking air or collections of fluid. You should notify your doctor if you experience fever, shortness of breath, or chest pain.
How long is it before the result of the test is known?
Your doctor can tell you how the surgery went as soon as it is finished. If biopsy samples were taken, these often require several days to be examined.
Always consult your healthcare provider to ensure the information displayed on this page applies to your personal circumstances.