Thoracic surgeons are highly specialized surgeons who are capable of performing operations on the organs and structures of the chest, such as the lungs and esophogas, but generally not on the heart.

Watch an Overview of Thoracic Surgery

About Thoracic Surgery

Thoracic surgery is a specialized medical specialty encompassing the surgical care of the lungs, heart, esophagus and other organs located in the chest (sometimes referred to as the thorax, hence the name of the specialty). Generally, surgeons who specialize on operations of the heart are considered cardiovascular or cardiac surgeons; surgeons who specialize in both of these areas are considered cardiothoracic or thoracic surgeons. Despite this fact, thoracic surgeons generally specialize in all organs of the chest, save for the heart.

Thoracic surgeons are capable of performing a wide range of surgeries on the organs and related structures of the heart; surgeries performed in this specialty may be considered elective or for emergency purposes. Thoracic surgeons may perform operations to remove tumors of the esophagus causing cancers such as adenocarcinoma or squamous cell carcinoma; they may perform surgeries to remove tumors causing soft tissue sarcoma; thoracic surgeons may perform operations to remove tumors in the lining of the chest wall that causes mesothelioma. Aside from the removal of tumors, thoracic surgeons may perform lung resection procedures to surgically remove all or part of a patient’s lung who is suffering from the early stages of lung cancer, lung volume reduction surgery to relieve symptoms of emphysema and thymectomy procedures to remove or operate on the thymus gland, among many other procedures.

Aside from the aforementioned conditions, thoracic surgeons are capable of performing operations to treat diseases and injuries such as severe trauma to the chest area, congenital defects and the various forms of lung cancer, as well as performing lung transplant surgeries. Generally, thoracic surgeons can be found providing care as part of a multidisciplinary medical team in specialized hospital divisions devoted specifically to thoracic and related surgeries.

Thoracic Surgery Education & Training

The education and training of a thoracic surgeon is demanding, rigorous and lengthy. This path begins with the completion of a four year undergraduate degree that is usually focused on the sciences. Following undergraduate school, the student must enter into a medical program to earn an MD or DO degree. After completing a program of study at an accredited medical school, the student must complete a five year residency program in general surgery.

During a standard general surgery residency, residents are prepared for life in the operating room through five years of clinical training coupled with the opportunity to perform research. Generally, the first two years of the residency focus on pre- and post-operative care, providing exposure to the various subspecialties and training in critical care. During the final three years of clinical training, residents are exposed to a wide range of surgical experiences that help to foster an independent sense of clinical judgment while still under the supervision of experienced surgeons.

Following successful completion of the general surgery residency, the surgeon must complete additional surgical training in the form of a two to three year residency or fellowship in thoracic or cardiothoracic surgery. During thoracic surgery training, the surgeon will perform operations on the abdomen and chest, excluding the heart and related structures. However, if the surgeon enters into a cardiothoracic residency/fellowship, they will perform surgical operations on organs and structures of the abdomen, chest and heart. Some thoracic surgeons may pursue additional training to further specialize on one organ or system. Following completion of the certification requirements, many thoracic surgeons seek board certification from the American Board of Thoracic Surgery. Thoracic surgeons must hold a valid medical license from the state(s) in which they provide care.