Dr Gareth Roberts, Consultant in Respiratory Medicine, performs a variety of procedures when investigating and diagnosing respiratory conditions and when treating his patients.

One common procedure is the insertion of chest drains. This straightforward procedure is performed using local anaesthetic.

Patients often require admission to hospital for a few days for management of these conditions though samples of fluid can be taken and the patient discharged on the same day.

Why are chest drains required?

Chest drains are thin plastic tubes that are put into the chest through the skin. They are positioned in different places to drain different substances that have build up in the lungs and that are causing various problems.

These include:

  • Pneumothorax: a build of air between the lung and the chest wall. This can happen for many reasons, including infection, chronic disease and trauma during an accident. The air in the wrong place means that the affected lung cannot inflate.
  • Pleural effusion: a build up of fluid between the chest wall and the lung. This can arise because of an infection or can be due to heart failure, liver problems or other diseases.
  • Haemothorax: this is similar to pleural effusion, but the fluid causing the problem is blood. It is most often due to trauma in an accident.
  • Empyema: a build up of pus due to an infection

Treatment for some lung conditions requires medication to be placed directly into the chest cavity, so a chest drain is sometimes put in to introduce this medicine.

What happens if I need a chest drain?

You will have the chest drain put in by Dr Roberts while you are in hospital. The conditions that require a chest drain usually need hospital treatment.

The procedure itself only takes about half an hour. Dr Roberts will find the best place to insert the needle into your chest using an ultrasound scan. Putting the needle in is not painless but you will have a local anaesthetic and pain killers so your discomfort will be minimised.

If the chest drain is put in to drain fluid, samples of this fluid will usually be taken and sent off for analysis.

As the fluid is removed, you should start to feel more comfortable. Most chest drains stay in place for a few days only.

The British Thoracic Society has a very good patient information leaflet on chest drain insertion.