Robot-Assisted Thoracic Procedures

Definition    TOP

Thoracic surgery is done on the chest, but it does not involve surgery on the heart. With robot-assisted thoracic procedures, the doctor guides small robotic arms through keyhole incisions.

Thoracic Surgery

Laparascopic Thoracic
Keyhole incisions and specialized equipment are used for a robot-assisted thoracic procedure.
Copyright © Nucleus Medical Media, Inc.

Reasons for Procedure    TOP

Robot-assisted thoracic procedures are considered for surgeries that:

  • Require precision
  • Do not require open access

Some thoracic surgeries that have been successfully performed using robotic techniques include:

  • Thymectomy—removal of the thymus gland
  • Lobectomy—removal of a lung lobe
  • Esophagectomy—removal of the esophagus
  • Mediastinal tumor resection—removal of tumors located in the mediastinum, which is the part of the chest cavity that separates the lungs
  • Sympathectomy—cauterizing a portion of the sympathetic nerve

Compared to more traditional procedures, robotic-assisted surgery may result in:

  • Less scarring
  • Reduced recovery times
  • Less risk of infection
  • Less blood loss
  • Reduced trauma to the body
  • Shorter hospital stay
  • Faster recovery

Possible Complications    TOP

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

  • Bleeding
  • Infection
  • Collection of air or gases in the lung cavity
  • Collapsed lung
  • Need for a prolonged artificial respiration on a breathing machine
  • Damage to nearby organs or structures
  • The need to switch to traditional surgical methods such as traditional laparoscopic or open surgery
  • Anesthesia-related problems
  • Nerve damage

Some factors that may increase the risk of complications include:

Be sure to discuss these risks with your doctor before the procedure.

What to Expect    TOP

Prior to Procedure

Depending on the reason for your surgery, your doctor may do the following:

Leading up to the procedure:

  • Talk to your doctor about your medications. You may be asked to stop taking some medications up to 1 week before the procedure.
  • Take antibiotics if instructed.
  • Follow a special diet if instructed.
  • Shower the night before using antibacterial soap if instructed.
  • Arrange for someone to drive you home from the hospital. Also, have someone to help you at home.
  • Eat a light meal the night before. Do not eat or drink anything after midnight.


General anesthesia will be used. It will block any pain and keep you asleep through the surgery.

Description of the Procedure    TOP

You will be connected to a ventilator. This is a machine that moves air in and out of your lungs. Next, several keyhole openings will be cut in the chest wall between the ribs. One or more chest tubes may be placed into the side of the chest. These tubes will be used to drain fluid and monitor air leakage. A needle may be used to inject carbon dioxide gas into the chest cavity. The gas will make it easier for internal structures to be viewed.

A small camera, called an endoscope, will be passed through one of the incisions. The camera will light, magnify, and project the structures onto a video screen. The camera will be attached to one of the robotic arms. The other arms will hold instruments for grasping, cutting, dissecting, and suturing. These may include:

  • Forceps
  • Scissors
  • Dissectors
  • Scalpels

While sitting at a console near the operating table, the doctor will use lenses to look at magnified 3D images of the inside of the body. Another doctor will stay by the table to adjust the camera and tools. The robotic arms and tools will be guided by movements of the surgeon to remove organs and tissue. After the tools are removed, the doctor will use sutures or staples to close the surgical area.

Immediately After Procedure    TOP

If you are doing well, the breathing tube will be removed. Later, the chest tubes will be removed.

How Long Will It Take?    TOP

About 1-4 hours, depending on the procedure

How Much Will It Hurt?    TOP

Anesthesia will prevent pain during surgery. Pain and discomfort after the procedure can be managed with medications. You may also feel discomfort from the gas used during the procedure. This can last up to 3 days.

Average Hospital Stay    TOP

This procedure is done in a hospital setting. The usual length of stay is a few days. Your doctor may choose to keep you longer if you have any problems.

Post-procedure Care    TOP

At the Hospital

While you are recovering at the hospital, you may receive the following care:

  • Assistance sitting up and moving around soon after surgery
  • Instructions on what you should eat and how to restrict your activity
  • Nutrition through an IV or feeding tube in the days after surgery; you will gradually progress from a liquid to a solid diet
  • Directions on how to do deep breathing and coughing exercises

At Home

When you return home, do the following to help ensure a smooth recovery:

  • Limit certain activities, such as doing strenuous exercise, until you have recovered.
  • Participate in any physical therapy or rehabilitation.
  • Follow your doctor's instructions.

Depending on the procedure, you should recover within a few weeks.

Call Your Doctor    TOP

It is important for you to monitor your recovery after you leave the hospital. Alert your doctor to any problems right away. If any of the following occur, call your doctor:

  • Cough or shortness of breath
  • Coughing up yellow, green, or bloody mucus
  • New chest pain
  • Signs of infection, including fever and chills
  • Redness, swelling, increasing pain, excessive bleeding, or discharge from an incision site
  • Pain and/or swelling in your feet, calves, or legs
  • New or worsening symptoms

If you think you have an emergency, call for medical help right away.


American College of Surgeons
Society of Thoracic Surgeons


Canadian Agency for Drugs and Technologies in Health
Canadian Lung Association


Rea F, Marulli G, et al. Robotic video-assisted thoracoscopic thymectomy. Multimed Man Cardiothorac Surg. 2005.
Sympathectomy. New York Presbyterian Hospital website. Available at:
...(Click grey area to select URL)
Accessed February 19, 2016.
What is robotic surgery? The Robotic Surgery Center at NYU Langone Medical Center website. Available at:
...(Click grey area to select URL)
Accessed February 19, 2016.
Last reviewed March 2017 by EBSCO Medical Review Board Michael Woods, MD, FAAP
Last Updated: 9/30/2013

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