The thymus is an immunological organ that lies behind the sternum above the aortic root; it plays an important role in the maturation of white blood cells, particularly during childhood. With increasing age, the thymus is no longer essential in terms of the immunological role for the human body, but it may become diseased. Tumours can develop or autoimmune diseases can originate in the thymus. Should a tumour develop, surgical removal is the primary treatment option. Thymus tumours can be benign or cancerous; they can be symptomatic or may be completely asymptomatic and found by chance on an x-ray.
Surgery in myasthenia gravis
Myasthenia is a weakening of muscle function, especially of the eyelids, which occasionally can also affect the diaphragm and other muscles. It is often caused by a tumorous mutation in the thymus and surgical removal of the tumour is necessary. As a rule, in the case of myasthenia, the thymus can be detached thoracoscopically from the heart, the aortic root and the chest organs from the left side, using special instruments, and then sometimes removed through a small incision in the neck. The surgery is usually extremely successful in respect to the improvement of symptoms of myasthenia gravis. The hospital stay is usually less than a week.
Surgery for malignant thymic tumours
Complex treatment is needed if a malignant tumour is found on the thymus. Occasionally, treatment with pre-operative radiation and chemotherapy is necessary, with surgery as a second step. Malignant tumours of the thymus are difficult to treat because the thymus has a relatively imprecise border with neighbouring organs, and no large gaps. This means that occasionally tumours of the thymus cannot be removed in a single operation, but rather in two steps with radiation treatment or chemotherapy in-between. The treatment of a malignant thymus disease is therefore complex and usually involves not only surgery, but also other specialist treatments.