What Is a Thoracic Surgeon?

Thoracic surgeons – who are often grouped with cardiac or heart, specialists for cardiothoracic surgery — operate on the heart, lungs, esophagus, and major blood vessels inside the chest, as well as the bony structures and tissues that form and support the chest cavity.

Heart disease is the leading cause of death in the United States, killing one person every 36 seconds. Experts estimate that someone has a heart attack every 40 seconds. Lung cancer is the third most common cancer and the leading cause of cancer death for men and women. These numbers highlight the importance of cardiac care and thoracic surgery.  

What Does a Thoracic Surgeon Do?

Thoracic surgeons specialize in dealing with diseases or injuries to the structures inside your chest, including your: 

  • Heart
  • Pericardium (the membrane around the heart)
  • Coronary arteries, valves, and myocardium
  • Trachea (windpipe)
  • Esophagus (the tube leading to the stomach)
  • Lungs
  • Pleura (membranes around the lungs)
  • Mediastinum (the area that separates the lungs and holds the heart)
  • Chest wall
  • Diaphragm 

Thoracic surgeons oversee related operations, managing treatment plans before, during, and after the procedure. They often build strong relationships with patients and their families, especially in emergencies like heart attacks. 

What Conditions Does a Thoracic Surgeon Treat?

Thoracic surgeons treat a variety of disorders, such as: 

  • Heart lesions, including coronary artery disease and valve disorders
  • Heart transplants
  • Lung cancer
  • Benign (noncancerous) lung diseases and lung tumors
  • Chest reconstruction
  • Esophageal cancer
  • Gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD)
  • Emphysema
  • Lung transplants
  • Mesothelioma
  • Tracheal resection 

Thoracic surgeons mainly treat lung cancer, lung disease, and diseases in the esophagus and chest wall. Cardiothoracic surgeons, by contrast, operate on more conditions in organs in the chest and the chest cavity.  

Education and Training

A thoracic surgery certification requires years of education and training, including: 

  • A 4-year undergraduate degree, often in pre-med 
  • A medical degree
  • A 5-year general surgery residency 

Residency options vary, and doctors then choose a thoracic surgery subspecialty, such as: 

  • Adult cardiac surgery
  • Congenital or pediatric heart surgery
  • General thoracic surgery

The length of a surgeon’s residency depends on the medical school and residency program. Specialty training may last 6 to 8 years before a thoracic surgeon gets their certification. 

Reasons to See a Thoracic Surgeon

In most cases, your primary care doctor will refer you to a thoracic surgeon if you have an illness or condition that requires chest surgery. You may notice symptoms like:

  • Chest pain that moves into your arms, shoulders, neck, and jaw
  • Dizziness 
  • Heart palpitations
  • Frequent fainting spells
  • Shortness of breath
  • Cough, if you’ve been diagnosed with lung cancer
  • Severe heartburn or acid reflux that is damaging your esophagus

Severe chest pain, dizziness, shortness of breath, and heart palpitations can all be signs of a heart attack. If these symptoms come on suddenly, call 911.

What to Expect at the Thoracic Surgeon

You’ll start with a consultation where your surgeon reviews your medical records and medical history. You can expect:

  • A physical exam, checking your blood pressure as well as heart and lung health 
  • Diagnostic tests including X-rays, EKG, or echocardiogram 
  • Suggestions for diagnostic or therapeutic steps to treat your condition 
  • A detailed discussion of your operation, including the benefits and possible health risks 
  • An explanation of other treatment options
  • Instructions to help you prepare for your visit to the hospital, your procedure, and your recovery 

It’s normal to be stressed over the idea of surgery. But your surgeon is trained to work with you and guide you and your loved ones through the process. 

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