Percutaneous Abscess Drainage Technique

Updated: Jan 24, 2022
  • Author: Evan J Samett, MD; Chief Editor: Kyung J Cho, MD, FACR, FSIR  more...
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Percutaneous Drainage of Abscess

The technique used for percutaneous abscess drainage (PAD) depends on case specifics and personal preference. The location of the fluid collection and the likelihood that it is infected must be taken into account, as well as the patient's overall condition.

The optimum access route is determined by the following:

  • Shortest pathway
  • Easiest angulation or localization
  • Avoidance of intervening or adjacent structures - Bowel (peritonitis risk), vital organs (bleeding risk, especially for the spleen), and sterile pleural effusions (secondary empyema risk)
  • Most convenient catheter location for patient
  • For a solid-organ abscess (eg, liver), access path should traverse a small amount of normal organ to reduce the risk of peritoneal spillage and bleeding

Bowel transgression is of concern, particularly when it involves the colon. It is acceptable to traverse bowel when the alternatives have a higher risk-to-benefit ratio. Bowel transgression is generally tolerated when multiple needle punctures are avoided, and the catheter is left in for at least 2 weeks to create a mature tract. The referring/surgical service should be aware of the increased PAD risk in these situations. One should avoid aspiration of "low-probability" collections through the colon.

PAD is performed by using standard aseptic technique and local lidocaine anesthesia. The procedure begins with a diagnostic aspiration, followed by catheter placement if fluid is purulent. Alternatively, a trocar technique may be used. Simple abscesses smaller than 5 cm in diameter may be treated with aspiration (and lavage) alone.

Percutaneous paired catheter drainage (ie, placement of two catheters within the same abscess cavity) has been advocated as an option for the treatment of both complex intra-abdominal abscesses and abscesses unresponsive to single-catheter drainage. [20]

Localization techniques

The choice of localization technique is influenced by individual and institutional preference. Any modality may be used to assist needle placement.

Computed tomography (CT) fluoroscopy is increasingly available and facilitates "one-stop shopping," allowing diagnostic CT and PAD to be performed readily in a single setting. [21] If CT fluoroscopy is not available, patient assessment may be performed with CT, and the PAD procedure may be performed with ultrasonographic (US) localization. Conventional fluoroscopy can be used as an adjunct to US. [22]  US guidance allows real-time imaging and does not involve radiation exposure. [23, 24, 25]

Large abscesses are amenable to "point-and-shoot" US localization. The transducer is manipulated to determine the puncture site, angle, depth, and margin for error. The site is marked by indenting the skin with the hub end of a needle. Entry is memorized, a one-blade-diameter skin incision is made with a No 11 scalpel, and the needle is placed without further imaging.

Real-time US may be used for small or deep abscesses or those that are otherwise difficult to access. A HiLiter needle (Inrad) may assist real-time guidance. In addition, US guidance hardware and software may make a difficult access much easier for those operators who are less experienced at free-hand US guidance.

An 18-gauge, 15-cm trocar needle (DTN-18-15.0, Cook) with an 8.5-French general-purpose locking pigtail catheter (ULT8.5-38-25-P-6S-CLM-RH, Cook) is recommended. A 21- to 22-gauge needle or a 12- to 14-French drainage catheter is not usually required for safety, efficacy, or fluid dynamics. When indicated, the Accustick (Boston Scientific) needle or the Neff Percutaneous Access set (NPAS-100-RB-NT, Cook) may be used. Larger-diameter drainage catheters are available from various vendors. Exceptions include viscous fluids and collections of necrotic tissue such as pancreatic infections or some empyemas.


Maintaining guide-wire access

It is critical never to lose guide-wire access during any portion of a drainage procedure. When access is lost, reentry may be difficult because of spontaneous decompression of the abscess or difficulties in imaging from disruption of the region. An advantage of the Accustick system is that it retains the 0.018-in. wire as the 0.038-in. wire is passed. If the larger wire becomes dislodged, then the smaller wire can be used for repeat access.

The author uses Teflon dilators with a Coons modification in which the tip tapers over a length of 5 cm rather than the standard 1 cm. The Coons modification allows the author to use only even-size French dilators. The author always overdilates to the next even dilator size to ease catheter passage.

If it proves difficult to pass the dilator or catheter, the skin incision should be checked first. There may be a remaining strand of subcutaneous connective tissue, or the incision may be too small. The easiest way to assess this is to gently pull back on the dilator or catheter (without losing guide-wire access). If the skin tents up as the catheter is withdrawn, the incision should be enlarged and passage reattempted. Hydrophilic coated dilators are now available (Cook) that greatly ease dilator passage; they use similar technology to that seen in the popular hydrophilic guide wires and are slippery only when wet.

Dealing with resistance to dilator or catheter

When there is resistance to passing the dilator or catheter, the assembly may kink under the skin. This is best determined with fluoroscopy. When it occurs, the wire and catheter should be gently withdrawn as a unit to undo the kink, then readvanced slowly. An assistant should hold the guide wire straight to prevent buckling or accidental withdrawal. The tissues are buttressed with a free hand, the catheter is held close to the skin, and the catheter or dilator is advanced in short firm strokes. This increases the radius of curvature (reducing buckling) and increases the effective rigidity of the unit.

If this fails, either the catheter/dilator or the guide wire must be exchanged. If there is sufficient catheter or dilator in the abscess, then the wire may be exchanged for a more rigid or nitinol variety. If not, the dilator or catheter may be exchanged for a hydrophilic 5-French dilator, whereupon a stiffer wire may be exchanged. Occasionally, either the tract must be balloon-dilated or an alternate access route must be chosen. These issues occur more frequently in scarred areas (eg, in patients who have had multiple nephrostomy procedures).


Postprocedural Care

Management of the patient with an abscess drainage catheter is best performed in a cooperative fashion with referring and surgical services. The quality and quantity of drainage is monitored along with signs of patient recovery. Clinical follow-up care may be augmented by CT, US, fluoroscopy, and plain-film contrast studies if the infection is not resolving. Additional catheter manipulation or placement is based on these results.

Simple abscess treatment usually is complete within 1-2 weeks. A complex abscess or enteric fistula may require weeks to months. Over the course of therapy, catheters may have to be revised, replaced, or repositioned. There are different approaches to post-PAD catheter management. Some prefer to remove the catheter as soon as drainage diminishes below 10 mL/shift. The author prefers to keep the catheter in until the cavity begins to close. Depending on the case, treatment is complete within a matter of days to weeks. Patients usually receive concurrent antibiotic therapy. [26]



Significant complications of PAD are rare.

One significant complication at the author's institution occurred in a patient with a pancreatic-region abscess when the catheter entered the duodenum. Although the patient did well clinically, the high volume of gastric juice drainage prompted surgery. Given the location of the patient's original abscess, this complication was not unexpected. [23]

Zhang et al reported a case of hepatic rupture occurring as a complication of percutaneous drainage of a pyogenic liver abscess. [27]