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Flail Chest Treatment & Management

  • Author: H Scott Bjerke, MD, FACS; Chief Editor: John Geibel, MD, DSc, MSc, MA  more...
Updated: Nov 06, 2014

Medical Therapy

Internal pneumatic stabilization for flail chest was popularized in the 1950s, but this treatment has subsequently been shown to be unnecessary in most patients without respiratory compromise. In a mid-1970s report, Trinkle et al provided compelling evidence that many patients fared better with adequate pain control and pulmonary toilet (including medical management of their pulmonary injury) than those placed on mechanical ventilation.[8] This remains the standard today. Mechanical ventilation is reserved for patients with persistent respiratory insufficiency or failure after adequate pain control or when complications related to excessive narcotic use occur. Patient-controlled analgesia (PCA) machines, oral pain medications, and indwelling epidural catheters form the mainstay of current treatment.

Two recent clinical reports, one from Turkey (prospective)[9] and one from Japan (retrospective),[10] showed that continuous positive airway pressure (CPAP) by mask may decrease mortality and nosocomial pneumonia in the ICU, but CPAP by mask does not appear to change the length of ICU stay.


Surgical Therapy

Surgical stabilization of the chest was rarely considered necessary in the past, but increasing numbers of reports of positive outcomes in more severe cases are now available in the world literature. Both external (lower efficacy) and internal stabilization have been advocated, usually in reports from outside the United States. As previously noted in traumatic causes, however, severity of respiratory failure is less a result of either the paradoxical motion of the chest wall (tidal volume abnormalities) or chest wall instability. Accordingly, surgical stabilization is still not routinely performed, although many reports show a benefit in decreasing mechanical ventilator days, long-term outcome, and overall lower cost of hospitalization in select patients with severe flail chest.[11, 12, 13, 14, 15]

In general, operative fixation is most commonly performed in patients requiring a thoracotomy for other reasons or in cases of gross chest wall deformity. Flail chest from multiple myeloma, sternal absence, or total sternectomy more frequently responds well to surgical fixation. Underlying pulmonary injury with respiratory insufficiency resulting from changes in tidal volume and minute ventilation in these patients is rare.

In a retrospective study involving 21 patients with flail chest who were admitted to a level I trauma center between September 2009 and June 2010, Doben et al examined the effectiveness of surgical rib fixation for patients in whom standard therapy had failed. Standard therapy consisted of pain control, aggressive pulmonary hygiene, positive pressure therapy with an acapella device, and frequent chest therapy (chest wall percussion, deep breathing, and coughing exercises). The surgical rib fixation surgeries were performed via a standard anterolateral or posterolateral muscle-sparing thoracotomy incision; ribs were reduced and internally fixated through use of osteosyntheses plates and intramedullary nails. Surgical rib fixation resulted in a significant decrease in ventilator days (4.5 vs 16.0), and the authors concluded that the technique may represent a means to decrease morbidity in patients with flail chest whose pulmonary status is declining.[16]

In a retrospective meta-analysis that included 11 studies with a total of 753 patients with flail chest, Slobogean et al compared the results of surgical fixation with those of nonoperative treatment. Surgical fixation resulted in better outcomes for all pooled analyses, including substantial decreases in ventilator days (mean, 8 days; 95% CI, 5 - 10 days) and the odds of developing pneumonia (odds ratio [OR] 0.2; 95% CI, 0.11 - 0.32). Additional benefits included decreased ICU days (mean, 5 days, 95% CI, 2 - 8 days), mortality (OR, 0.31; 95% CI 0.20 - 0.48), septicemia (OR, 0.36; 95% CI, 0.19 - 0.71), tracheostomy (OR, 0.06; 95% CI, 0.02 - 0.20), and chest deformity (OR 0.11; 95% CI, 0.02 - 0.60). The authors concluded that surgical fixation offers substantial clinical benefits over nonopoerative treatment.[17]


Preoperative Details

Assessment of the severity of underlying pulmonary contusion versus chest wall instability should direct the need for surgical fixation. Preoperatively, a double-lumen endotracheal tube should be considered in patients with flail chest undergoing fixation.


Intraoperative Details

The current literature suggests that both ends of a fractured rib must be stabilized for operative intervention to be most effective. Judet struts, Kirschner (K-) wires, and even prosthetic mesh secured with methylmethacrylate techniques have been described in the literature, but no large randomized prospective trial has been completed to compare the techniques at this time. Because of the increasing interest in surgical stabilization, there are multiple commercially available fixation devices within the last few years.


Postoperative Details

Routine postthoracotomy care with ICU or surgical step-down level observation and close monitoring of respiratory parameters is crucial.



Follow-up chest x-rays and pulmonary function tests determine the resolution of underlying pulmonary pathology and any possible long-term disability as a result of the initial condition.



Reports in the medical literature note a high level of long-term disability in patients sustaining flail chest. Beal and Oreskovich reported a 22% disability rate with over 63% having long-term problems, including persistent chest wall pain, deformity, and dyspnea on exertion.[18] Kishikawa et al, however, noted resolution of altered pulmonary function within 6 months, even with chest wall deformity still present.[19]


Outcome and Prognosis

Overall, patients with flail chest have a 5-10% reported mortality if they reach the hospital alive. Patients who do not need mechanical ventilation do better statistically, and overall mortality seems to increase with increasing injury severity scores (ISS), age, and number of total rib fractures.

Few long-term follow-up studies regarding flail chest are available. In the absence of concomitant lethal injuries, Freedland et al reported adverse outcomes to be more likely with more severe associated injuries noted by ISS scoring, excessive blood loss and transfusion requirements, bilateral flail chest, and patient age older than 50 years.[20] A report by Albaugh and associates in New Jersey noted flail chest mortality increased 132% with each decade of life,[21] but another report by Athanassiadi and associates found no correlation with age.[22] Both studies noted increasing mortality with increasing ISS. As previously noted, some reports suggest a high rate of disability after flail chest; however, most patients do well and return to normal function after 6-12 months.

Dehghan et al conducted a retrospective analysis of data from the National Trauma Data Bank of injury patterns, management, and clinical outcomes for 3,467 patients in whom flail chest was identified from 2007 to 2009. The mean age of the patients was 52 years; 77.5% were male. Treatment practices included use of epidural catheters (8%); surgical fixation of the chest wall (0.7%); and mechanical ventilation (59%). Complications included pneumonia (21%); adult respiratory distress syndrome (14%); sepsis (7%); and death (16%). More than 99% of patients were treated nonoperatively, and a small proportion (8%) received aggressive pain management with epidural catheters. The authors concluded that alternative methods of treatment, including more consistent use of epidural catheters for pain and surgical fixation, should be investigated.[23]


Future and Controversies

Further improvements in emergency medical systems and the education of prehospital personnel may increase the observed frequency of flail chest in the future. Improvements in noninvasive ventilation techniques like CPAP and pain control may also improve currently observed outcomes. Prevention, including safer automobiles and newer airbag design may affect the incidence and outcome of these multifactorial injuries.

Contributor Information and Disclosures

H Scott Bjerke, MD, FACS Clinical Associate Professor, Department of Surgery, University of Missouri-Kansas City School of Medicine; Medical Director of Trauma Services, Research Medical Center; Clinical Professor, Department of Surgery, Kansas City University of Medicine and Biosciences

H Scott Bjerke, MD, FACS is a member of the following medical societies: American Association for the History of Medicine, American Association for the Surgery of Trauma, American College of Surgeons, Midwest Surgical Association, Royal Society of Medicine, Eastern Association for the Surgery of Trauma, Association for Academic Surgery, National Association of EMS Physicians, Pan-Pacific Surgical Association, Southwestern Surgical Congress, Wilderness Medical Society

Disclosure: Nothing to disclose.

Specialty Editor Board

Francisco Talavera, PharmD, PhD Adjunct Assistant Professor, University of Nebraska Medical Center College of Pharmacy; Editor-in-Chief, Medscape Drug Reference

Disclosure: Received salary from Medscape for employment. for: Medscape.

Robert L Sheridan, MD Assistant Chief of Staff, Chief of Burn Surgery, Shriners Burns Hospital; Associate Professor of Surgery, Department of Surgery, Division of Trauma and Burns, Massachusetts General Hospital and Harvard Medical School

Robert L Sheridan, MD is a member of the following medical societies: American Academy of Pediatrics, American Association for the Surgery of Trauma, American Burn Association, American College of Surgeons

Disclosure: Received research grant from: Shriners Hospitals for Children; Physical Sciences Inc<br/>Received income in an amount equal to or greater than $250 from: SimQuest Inc -- consultant on burn mapping softwear ($1,500).

Chief Editor

John Geibel, MD, DSc, MSc, MA Vice Chair and Professor, Department of Surgery, Section of Gastrointestinal Medicine, and Department of Cellular and Molecular Physiology, Yale University School of Medicine; Director, Surgical Research, Department of Surgery, Yale-New Haven Hospital; American Gastroenterological Association Fellow

John Geibel, MD, DSc, MSc, MA is a member of the following medical societies: American Gastroenterological Association, American Physiological Society, American Society of Nephrology, Association for Academic Surgery, International Society of Nephrology, New York Academy of Sciences, Society for Surgery of the Alimentary Tract

Disclosure: Received royalty from AMGEN for consulting; Received ownership interest from Ardelyx for consulting.

Additional Contributors

Lewis J Kaplan, MD, FACS, FCCM, FCCP Associate Professor of Surgery, Division of Trauma, Surgical Critical Care, and Emergency Surgery, Perelman School of Medicine, University of Pennsylvania; Section Chief, Surgical Critical Care, Philadelphia Veterans Affairs Medical Center

Lewis J Kaplan, MD, FACS, FCCM, FCCP is a member of the following medical societies: American Association for the Surgery of Trauma, American College of Surgeons, Association for Academic Surgery, Association for Surgical Education, Connecticut State Medical Society, Eastern Association for the Surgery of Trauma, International Trauma Anesthesia and Critical Care Society, Society for the Advancement of Blood Management, Society of Critical Care Medicine, Surgical Infection Society

Disclosure: Nothing to disclose.

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Image depicting multiple fractures of the left upper chest wall. The first rib is often fractured posteriorly (black arrows). If multiple rib fractures occur along the midlateral (red arrows) or anterior chest wall (blue arrows), a flail chest (dotted black lines) may result.
Multiple left rib fractures, pulmonary contusion, and hemothorax in an elderly man after a motor vehicle accident.
Axial computed tomography image of the chest in a patient with left posterior rib fractures. The left pneumothorax (white arrows) is associated with a displaced posterior left rib fracture (black arrow). Secondary effects on the left lung include a pulmonary contusion and volume loss.
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