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Empyema necessitans

Empyema necessitans (also sometimes spelt as empyema necessitasis) refers to extension of a pleural infection out of the thorax and into the neighbouring chest wall and surrounding soft tissues, e.g. extension of an empyema outwith the pleural cavity.


It may either occur due the virulence of the organism or may be facilitated by previous thoracic surgery (e.g thoracotomy) or trauma allowing infection to track through. It occurs commonly to subcutaneous tissues of the chestwall, but can also spread to involve other sites such as the esophageal, breast, retroperitoneal, peritoneal, pericardial, para vertebral regions. The resultant subcutaneous abscess may eventually rupture through the skin. 

Causative organisms

Radiographic features

Plain film - chest radiography 

Often non specific and at times can even be normal. May suggest a soft tissue density in the chest wall.

CT chest

Best at assessing extent of infection out of the thoracic cavity. 

  • will classically show an empyema (often relatively well demarctated collection) with extension through the chest wall into an extra-thoracic compartment
  • accompanying rib destruction may be present

Treatment and prognosis

Management options include closed or open drainage of the pleural space to prevent fibrosis and to facilitate expansion of the lung. Appropriate antibiotic therapy is also a mainstay of treatment 11.

Differential diagnosis

General imaging differential considerations include

  • malignant pleural based mass - e.g. mesothelioma : different clinical context and will have more solid components
  • trans-diaphragmatic spread of intra abdominal infection / or intra-abdominal collection

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