Fast Facts: Tracheotomy

A tracheotomy (search) is a surgical procedure during which doctors cut a hole through the throat into the windpipe, or trachea, in order to help someone breathe.

It's performed when the windpipe gets blocked.

How could the windpipe get blocked?

— The larynx, or voicebox, could become so swollen that air can't get through. (see "anatomy")

— An object could become stuck in the larynx or windpipe.

How does the tracheotomy work?

— Basically, think of the blocked trachea as a blocked highway.

— The tracheotomy is a detour for air to get to the lungs.

— Instead of going through the mouth and back of the neck, doctors send the air directly through the front of the throat.

— To do that, doctors cut into the neck and then insert a tube into the trachea that lets in air.

— In diseases such as pneumonia, the incision can be used to drain the lungs of fluid.

— A tracheotomy is not permanent. (A tracheostomy is the permanent procedure.)

— Once the blockage is cleared, the hole in the neck can be closed and allowed to heal.

Anatomy Involved

— The trachea and larynx are essential to breathing.

— Air enters the nose or mouth and then goes down through the larynx, or voicebox.

— The voicebox has a valve that opens and closes for air (and to produce sound).

— You can feel the voicebox as the Adam's Apple at the front of the throat.

— The voicebox/larynx leads to the trachea, or windpipe.

— The trachea is a rigid tube of cartilage that goes to the lungs.