Chest injuries, blunt

Chest injuries, blunt


One-fourth of all trauma deaths in the United States result from chest injuries. Many are blunt chest injuries, which include myocardial contusion and rib and sternal fractures; these may be simple, multiple, displaced, or jagged. Such fractures may cause potentially fatal complications, such as hemothorax, pneumothorax, hemorrhagic shock, and diaphragmatic rupture.


Most blunt chest injuries result from motor vehicle accidents. Other common causes include sports and blast injuries.

Signs and symptoms

Rib fractures produce tenderness, slight edema over the fracture site, and pain that worsens with deep breathing and movement; this painful breathing causes the patient to display shallow, splinted respirations that may lead to hypoventilation.

Sternal fractures, which are usually transverse and located in the middle or upper sternum, produce persistent chest pain, even at rest. If a fractured rib tears the pleura and punctures a lung, it causes pneumothorax, which usually produces severe dyspnea, cyanosis, agitation, extreme pain and, when air escapes into chest tissue, subcutaneous emphysema.

Multiple rib fractures

Multiple rib fractures may cause flail chest: a portion of the chest wall “caves” in, which causes a loss of chest wall integrity and prevents adequate lung inflation. Bruised skin, extreme pain caused by rib fracture and disfigurement, paradoxical chest movements, and rapid, shallow respirations are all signs and symptoms of flail chest, as are tachycardia, hypotension, respiratory acidosis, and cyanosis.

Flail chest can also cause tension pneumothorax, a condition in which air enters the chest but can’t be ejected during exhalation; life-threatening thoracic pressure buildup causes lung collapse and subsequent mediastinal shift. The cardinal signs and symptoms of tension pneumothorax include tracheal deviation (away from the affected side), cyanosis, severe dyspnea, absent breath sounds (on the affected side), agitation, jugular vein distention, and shock.


When a rib lacerates lung tissue or an intercostal artery, hemothorax occurs, causing blood to collect in the pleural cavity, thereby compressing the lung and limiting respiratory capacity. It can also result from rupture of large or small pulmonary vessels.

Massive hemothorax is the most common cause of shock following chest trauma. Although slight bleeding occurs even with mild pneumothorax, such bleeding resolves very quickly, usually without changing the patient’s condition.

Rib fractures may also cause pulmonary contusion (resulting in hemoptysis, hypoxia, dyspnea and, possibly, obstruction), large myocardial tears (which can be rapidly fatal), and small myocardial tears (which can cause pericardial effusion).

Further complications

Myocardial contusions produce electrocardiogram (ECG) abnormalities. Laceration or rupture of the aorta is nearly always immediately fatal. In rare
cases, aortic laceration may develop 24 hours after blunt injury, so patient observation is critical.

Only gold members can continue reading. Log In or Register to continue

Stay updated, free articles. Join our Telegram channel

Jun 16, 2016 | Posted by in GENERAL & FAMILY MEDICINE | Comments Off on Chest injuries, blunt

Full access? Get Clinical Tree

Get Clinical Tree app for offline access