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The thorax includes the lungs, heart, and thymus gland. Thoracentesis or pleural tap is a common procedure that physicians perform to either reduce the amount of fluid around the lungs or to analyze it. Doctors remove the fluid from the pleural space, the space between pleura — the tissue that covers the lungs — and the inside of the chest. Normally, the pleural space contains only a small amount of fluid, but some conditions lead to pleural effusion, a buildup of fluid around the lungs.

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1. The History of Thoracentesis

In the fifth century B.C.E., Hippocrates first described a process he developed to drain the thoracic area. His Hippocratic texts instructed practitioners to remove fluids from the body using plant-based medications. If this process didn’t work, the texts told of a treatment where the physician cut the skin between the ribs and allowed any excess infected fluid to drain out. Once the fluid cleared, he inserted a hollow tube and completely drained the thoracic cavity. By the late 1950s, thoracentesis became a standard of care for draining fluid from the thoracic cavity. Since then, it has become a common and low-risk option. The materials doctors use to perform fluid removal have seen major advancements. There have also been significant strides in infection prevention, an issue that plagued the practice in its earliest forms.

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