(Removal of the Thymus Gland)
DefinitionA thymectomy is surgery to remove the thymus gland. This gland is located in the upper portion of the chest, behind the breastbone.
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Reasons for ProcedureThe thymus gland helps immune cell growth. It is usually active when you are an infant, but its function reduces as you get older. The thymus acts abnormally when a person has myasthenia gravis. A thymectomy is used to treat myasthenia gravis. A thymectomy may also be done if the thymus has a tumor, which is called thymoma. These types of tumors are associated with myasthenia gravis.
Possible ComplicationsProblems from the procedure are rare, but all procedures have some risk. Your doctor will review potential problems, like:
- Damage to other organs
- Nerve injury
- Respiratory failure
What to Expect
Prior to Procedure
- Your doctor will likely do the following:
- A physical examination
- Blood tests
- Urine tests
- Muscle strength tests
- Breathing tests
- Follow a special diet, which may include withholding foods and fluids before surgery.
- Take prescribed medications as directed by your doctor.
- Talk to your doctor about your medications. You may be asked to stop taking some medications up to one week before the procedure.
- Arrange to have someone drive you to and from the procedure.
- Ask for help at home after your procedure.
AnesthesiaGeneral anesthesia will be given—you will be asleep during the procedure
Description of ProcedureThere are 3 common methods:
- Trans-sternal approach—An incision will be made in the skin over your breastbone. The breastbone will be pulled apart. The thymus gland will then be exposed and removed. The incision will be closed with stitches or staples.
- Transcervical approach—A small incision is made across the lower part of the neck, just above the breastbone. The thymus gland will be removed. The incision will be closed with stitches or staples.
- Video-assisted thoracic surgery (VATS) or robot-assisted thoracic procedures—This is a less invasive option. Several tiny incisions are made in the area. A tiny camera will be inserted through one of the incisions. The camera will send images to a monitor in the room. Robotic arms may be used to do the surgery. Special tools will be passed through the remaining incisions to remove the thymus. After the thymus is removed, the incisions will be closed with stitches.
Immediately After ProcedureYou will be taken to a recovery room and monitored for any complications.
How Long Will It Take?About 1-3 hours
How Much Will It Hurt?Anesthesia will prevent pain during surgery. Pain and discomfort after the procedure can be managed with medications.
Average Hospital StayThe usual length of stay is 1-3 days. Your doctor may choose to keep you longer if complications arise.
Post-procedure CareAt the HospitalYou will be given fluids and medication through an IV. You will be instructed to practice deep breathing, coughing, and frequent turning. Nurses will measure your muscle strength and breathing ability to determine the effectiveness of the surgery.Preventing InfectionDuring your stay, the hospital staff will take steps to reduce your chance of infection, such as:
- Washing their hands
- Wearing gloves or masks
- Keeping your incisions covered
- Washing your hands often and reminding your healthcare providers to do the same
- Reminding your healthcare providers to wear gloves or masks
- Not allowing others to touch your incision
- Improvement in muscle strength may take several months to a few years.
- It is important to work with a neurologist during the recovery period to regulate medications.
- You may need to work with a physical therapist
Call Your DoctorIt 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:
- Signs of infection, including fever and chills
- Redness, swelling, increasing pain, excessive bleeding, or any discharge from the incision site
- Pain that you cannot control with the medications you've been given
- Cough, difficulty breathing, or chest pain
- Pain, burning, urgency, or frequency of urination, or persistent bleeding in the urine
- Persistent nausea and vomiting
- Pain and/or swelling in your feet, calves, or legs
- New or worsening symptoms
Myasthenia Gravis Foundation of America, Inc.
National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke
Muscular Dystrophy Canada
General information about thymoma and thymic cancers. National Cancer Institute. Available at: http://www.cancer.gov/cancertopics/pdq/treatment/thymoma/patient.Updated March 22, 2013. Accessed May 22, 2013.
Myasthenia gravis fact sheet. National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke website. Available at: http://www.ninds.nih.gov/disorders/myasthenia%5Fgravis/detail%5Fmyasthenia%5Fgravis.htm#84053153. Updated December 4, 2012. Accessed May 22, 2013.
Shrager JB. Extended transcervical thymectomy: the ultimate minimally invasive approach. Ann Thorac Surg. 2010;89(6):S2128-2134.
6/3/2011 DynaMed's Systematic Literature Surveillance https://dynamed.ebscohost.com/about/about-us: Mills E, Eyawo O, et al. Smoking cessation reduces postoperative complications: a systematic review and meta-analysis. Am J Med. 2011;124(2):144-154.
- Reviewer: Michael Woods, MD
- Review Date: 02/2015
- Update Date: 01/23/2014