Flail Chest—Everything You Need to Know
In flail chest, three or more ribs are involved in segmental fractures. A segment of the rib cage breaks and then becomes separated or detached from the chest well. It usually requires a significant amount of violent force in order for the ribs to break in this way. Due to the nature of this injury, flail chest could be a life threatening condition.
The fractured segment will sink into the chest with inspiration and expand out of the chest wall with expiration opposite to the normal chest wall mechanics. The segmented rib fractures work independently. If the segmented section moves right, then the rest of the ribs move left, and vice versa. The flail chest moves in the opposite direction of the chest wall. The fractured segment goes in while the rest of the chest goes out—this is called paradoxical breathing.
There may be a pulmonary contusion associated with the flail chest fracture segment, and this contusion could be more significant than the flail segment. There may also be a noticeable chest wall deformity with the presence of air in the subcutaneous tissue (crepitus). Trauma to the chest usually causes scapular fractures or a clavicle fracture.
Symptoms of Flail Chest:
- Patient will have chest pain and shortness of breath
- Paradoxical movement of the flail segment
- The constant movement of the ribs is very painful
- The broken rib may puncture the lung and cause pneumothorax
On an x-ray, it is difficult to see if the fractures are displaced or nondisplaced. A CT scan is probably the best method for visualizing these fractures.
The prognosis varies and it depends on the severity of the condition, however, the death rate ranges between 10-25% usually depending on the pulmonary injury. About 8% of patients who are admitted to the hospital with fractured ribs will have a flail chest.
If there is no respiratory compromise and no flail chest segment, observation of the patient will be done. It is important to follow advanced trauma life support (ATLS) principles.
The patient’s pain will need to be managed—usually with intercostal nerve blocks. It is essential to avoid the suppression of breathing and if necessary, give the patient positive pressure ventilation (a chest tube if needed).
Surgery may help in reducing the duration of the ventilator support and aid in the pulmonary function. The patient will need aggressive pulmonary toilet and physiotherapy.
An open reduction and internal fixation should be done when there is severe pain and displaced ribs, when there is a flail chest segment (three or more consecutive fractured ribs with segmental injury), the rib fractures are associated with failure to wean the patient off of ventilation, and/or when there are open rib fractures. Usually a plate and screw system is used in addition to early range of motion of the shoulders.