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Rib Fracture

By

Thomas G. Weiser

, MD, MPH, Stanford University School of Medicine

Last full review/revision May 2020| Content last modified May 2020
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One or more ribs can be fractured due to blunt chest injury.

Typically, rib fractures result from blunt injury to the chest wall, usually involving a strong force (eg, due to high-speed deceleration, a baseball bat, a major fall); however, sometimes in older patients, only mild or moderate force (eg, in a minor fall) is required. If ≥ 3 adjacent ribs fracture in 2 separate places, the broken segment results in a flail chest Flail Chest Flail chest is multiple fractures in ≥ 3 adjacent ribs that result in a segment of the chest wall separating from the rest of the thoracic cage; it is a marker for injury to the underlying lung... read more .

Pearls & Pitfalls

  • Minor trauma (eg, due to a fall) in older people can cause rib fractures that may have fatal consequences.

Concomitant chest injuries may occur, including

Complications

Most complications from rib fractures result from concomitant injuries. Isolated rib fractures are painful but rarely cause complications. However, inspiratory splinting (incomplete inspiration due to pain) can cause atelectasis Atelectasis Atelectasis is collapse of lung tissue with loss of volume. Patients may have dyspnea or respiratory failure if atelectasis is extensive. They may also develop pneumonia. Atelectasis is usually... read more Atelectasis and pneumonia Overview of Pneumonia Pneumonia is acute inflammation of the lungs caused by infection. Initial diagnosis is usually based on chest x-ray and clinical findings. Causes, symptoms, treatment, preventive measures, and... read more , especially in older patients or patients with multiple fractures. As a result, older patients have high mortality rates (up to 20%) due to rib fractures. Young healthy patients and those with 1 or 2 rib fractures rarely develop these complications.

Symptoms and Signs of Rib Fracture

Pain is severe, is aggravated by movement of the trunk (including coughing or deep breathing), and lasts for several weeks. The affected ribs are quite tender; sometimes the clinician can detect crepitance over the affected rib as the fracture segment moves during palpation.

Diagnosis of Rib Fracture

  • Usually chest x-ray

Palpation of the chest wall may identify some rib fractures. Some clinicians feel clinical evaluation is adequate in healthy patients with minor trauma. However, in patients with significant blunt trauma, a chest x-ray is typically done to check for concomitant injuries (eg, pneumothorax, pulmonary contusion Pulmonary Contusion Pulmonary contusion is trauma-induced lung hemorrhage and edema without laceration. (See also Overview of Thoracic Trauma.) Pulmonary contusion is a common and potentially lethal chest injury... read more ). Many rib fractures are not visible on a chest x-ray; specific rib views can be done, but identifying all rib fractures by x-ray is usually unnecessary. Other tests are done to check for concomitant injuries that are clinically suspected.

Treatment of Rib Fracture

  • Analgesia

  • Pulmonary toilet

Treatment of rib fractures usually requires opioid analgesics, although opioids can also depress respiration and worsen atelectasis Atelectasis Atelectasis is collapse of lung tissue with loss of volume. Patients may have dyspnea or respiratory failure if atelectasis is extensive. They may also develop pneumonia. Atelectasis is usually... read more Atelectasis . Some clinicians prescribe nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) simultaneously.

To minimize pulmonary complications, patients should consciously and frequently (eg, hourly while awake) breathe deeply or cough. Holding (essentially splinting) the affected area with the flat palm of the hand or a pillow can minimize the pain during deep breathing or coughing. Patients are hospitalized if they have ≥ 3 fractures or underlying cardiopulmonary insufficiency. Immobilization (eg, by strapping or taping) should usually be avoided; it constricts respiration and may predispose to atelectasis and pneumonia. If patients cannot cough or breathe deeply despite oral or IV analgesics, epidural drug administration or intercostal nerve blocks can be considered.

Key Points

  • Morbidity results from underlying lung, splenic, or vascular injury or development of pneumonia due to splinting, rather than rib fractures themselves.

  • X-ray identification of all rib fractures is usually unnecessary.

  • Pain can be severe and last for weeks, usually requiring opioid analgesics.

  • Strapping or taping should usually be avoided because it constricts respiration and may predispose to atelectasis and pneumonia.

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