Background: Lymph node dissection along bilateral recurrent laryngeal nerves (RLNs) is an essential component of radical esophagectomy for esophageal squamous carcinoma. However, it is associated with significant morbidity and requires a great deal of skill when performed with minimally invasive surgery. Methods: Between October 2010 and July 2012, 40 consecutive patients underwent a robot-assisted thoracoscopic esophagectomy and total mediastinal lymphadenectomy. The lymph nodes along the dorsal side of the RLNs were removed in the initial 18 patients (group 1), and the RLNs were skeletonized by dissection of all the lymph nodes and surrounding fatty tissues in the following 22 patients (group 2). Results: All but one patient underwent a successful robot-assisted, thoracoscopic esophagectomy. The mean operation time was 428.6 ± 75.0 min, and the mean robot console time was 186.7 ± 52.1 min. An average of 42.6 ± 14.1 nodes was retrieved, and the mean number of dissected nodes from the mediastinum and the RLN chains were 25.5 ± 9.6 and 9.6 ± 6.5, respectively. One mortality occurred (2.5 %), and the incidences of pneumonia and RLN palsy were 12.5 and 20 %, respectively. The mean robot console time was longer in group 2 (211.4 ± 49.5 min) than in group 1 (156.6 ± 38.2 min) (p < 0.001), and group 2 had higher mean numbers of dissected nodes from the mediastinum (30.3 ± 7.9 vs 19.6 ± 8.2; p < 0.001) and the RLN chains (13.5 ± 5.7 vs 4.8 ± 3.6; p < 0.001). Although RLN palsy was more common in group 2 (31.8 vs 5.6 %; p = 0.054), all palsies resolved within 1 year. Conclusions: Robot-assisted thoracoscopic lymphadenectomy along bilateral RLNs was technically feasible and safe. Skeletonization of the RLNs yields more lymph nodes, but efforts should be made to decrease the incidence of RLN palsy.
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