Chest Trauma

Article Author:
Ashika Jain
Article Editor:
Muhammad Waseem
1/29/2019 7:38:21 AM
PubMed Link:
Chest Trauma


Chest trauma has quickly risen the second most common traumatic injury in non-intentional trauma. Trauma to the chest comes with the highest mortality; in some studies, up to 60%. [1] Quick thinking and early interventions are key factors for evaluations, management, and survival.


Chest trauma can be a result of penetrating or blunt trauma. Blunt trauma, on the whole, is a more common cause of traumatic injuries and can be equally life-threatening. It is important to know the mechanism as management may be different.[2][3]  Most blunt trauma is managed non operatively, whereas penetrating chest trauma often requires operative intervention.


All age ranges are at risk for chest trauma. After head and extremity trauma, chest trauma is the third most common blunt injury and quickly rising to second. Motor vehicle injuries are the most common of these. However, this is declining with the advent of improved vehicle safety.[3][4][5][6][7]


Early recognition of trauma to the chest is a priority. The first 3 steps of trauma evaluation involve evaluation, recognition, and intervention of potential injuries to “the box.” Following a routine method of evaluation reduces missed injuries. Injuries to the heart and lungs are primary and vital since they have the highest mortality if missed. Injuries to other thoracic structures also need to be considered; ribs, clavicle, trachea, bronchi, esophagus, and arteries including the aorta and veins need to be evaluated in the secondary and tertiary survey.

The primary survey serves as a time to identify immediately life-threatening injuries. These injuries should be addressed at the time of identification.

Potential injuries that should be ruled out are:

  • Large hemothorax
  • Large pneumothorax
  • Pericardial effusion with or without tamponade

Once the initial exam is complete and adjunct imaging is complete, a secondary survey may reveal:

  • Rib fractures
  • Small hemothorax
  • Small pneumothorax
  • Pulmonary contusion
  • Chest wall contusion

There are physical exam findings that increase suspicion of chest trauma. Contusions of the chest wall in the pattern of seatbelts, point tenderness over the ribs, decreased breath sounds over the hemothorax, tachypnea, hypoxia, alone or conjunction with other findings suggest thoracic trauma. The mechanism should also be considered. If mechanism warrants a high level of suspicion, an ECG should be done to evaluate cardiac contusion.[5][7]


While chest radiography prevails, it does have limitations. Since chest radiography is achieved in the supine position, small and medium-sized pneumothoraces and hemothoraces may be missed.

The extended-Focused Assessment with Sonography in Trauma (eFAST) may be done with the primary survey, especially in the unstable patient. This can help quickly identify places with air and or blood and direct, definitive management. Compared to supine chest radiography, bedside eFAST is more sensative to evaluate for pneumothroax. [8][9][10][11][12][13][14]

The 4 views of the traditional Focused Assessment with Sonography in Trauma (FAST) exam include the cardiac (subxiphoid) window, right upper quadrant (RUQ, or Morrison’s pouch), left upper quadrant (LUQ) and suprapubic (bladder) window. Presence of a black collection outside of an organ, viscera, or pericardia suggests a +FAST exam.

The EFAST includes pulmonary views to evaluate for pneumothorax and hemothorax, in addition to the traditional four views. eFAST should be started in the area where there is the highest suspicion for injury. If the thorax is of concern, then this is where the eFAST should begin. This includes anterior chest wall evaluation between ribs for pneumothorax and looking for the continuation of the spinal stripe caudal to the diaphragm in the RUQ and LUQ windows to evaluate for hemothorax. The spinal stripe can be present in cases of pleural effusion. Similar to a positive FAST exam, any presence of fluid in the trauma patient is assumed to be blood.

Computed tomography (CT) is more sensitive and specific. However, this requires the patient to be stable enough for transport.

Other adjuncts include endoscopy, bronchoscopy, and electrocardiography to complete evaluation when warranted. [15][16]

Treatment / Management

Once the ABCs (airway, breathing, circulation) have been addressed, injury specific interventions should be undertaken.

Immediate life-threatening injuries require prompt intervention, such as emergent tube thoracostomy for large pneumothoraces, and initial management of hemothorax. For cases of hemothorax, adequate drainage is imperative to prevent retained hemothorax. Retained hemothorax can lead to empyema requiring video-assisted thoracoscopic surgery.[15][17]

The majority of thoracic trauma can be managed non operatively. However, operative management should not be delayed when appropriate. Operative exploration of thoracic injuries should be considered if tube thoracostomy drainage exceeds 1000-1500mL immediately, about 200 mL per hour for 2 to 4 hours or ongoing resuscitation (blood transfusion, persistent hypotension) with no other discernable cause.


Minor injuries may simply require close monitoring and pain control. Care should be taken in the young and the elderly. Patients with 3 or more rib fractures, a flail segment, and any number of rib fractures with pulmonary contusions, hemopneumothorax, hypoxia, or pre-existing pulmonary disease should be monitored at an advanced level of care.

Pain Control

Pain control greatly affects mortality and morbidity in patients with chest trauma.[18]  Pain leads to splints which worsen or prevent healing. In many cases, can lead to pneumonia.Early analgesia should be considered to decrease splinting.  In the acute setting, push doses of short-acting narcotics should be used.

Other pain control options include interpleural nerve blocks, transdermal patches, intravenous patient control analgesia (PCA) and epidural analgesia.

Nonnarcotic transdermal patches are safe pain management options for many patients. It should be considered for patients with persistent chest wall pain despite lack of confirmed rib fractures, the patient's being discharged or as an adjunct while admitted.


Prophylactic antibiotics administration for tube thoracostomy for blunt thoracic trauma did not reduce the incidence of empyema or pneumonia when placed with sterile technique.[19]

It should be considered in cases of grossly contaminated wounds, or in cases where the sterile technique was broken.

Operative Management of Rib Fractures

Open reduction and internal fixation (ORIF) has been shown to decrease mortality in patients with flail chest, shorten the duration of mechanical ventilation, reduce hospital length of stay, and reduce intensive care length of stay. [20]

Differential Diagnosis

A complete primary, secondary, and tertiary survey should be completed to avoid missed or confounding injuries.

Pearls and Other Issues

Special Populations

Geriatric patients have higher mortality compared to younger patients with the same injuries.

Elderly patients with a single rib fracture have twice the mortality as their younger counterparts with the same injury. Mortality increases by 19% for each additional rib and the risk of pneumonia by 27%.[21][22]