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Sternal Fracture Treatment & Management

  • Author: Scott Felten, MD, FACEP; Chief Editor: Trevor John Mills, MD, MPH  more...
Updated: May 25, 2016

Prehospital Care

Initiate basic or advanced trauma care based on the level of training of the ambulance crew and initial assessment.

Care should include the following steps:

  • Supplemental oxygen
  • Cardiac monitoring
  • Intravenous access
  • Consideration of an analgesic
  • Trauma care as warranted by protocol for any suspected associated injuries

Emergency Department Care

After immediate stabilization, evaluate the patient by obtaining a complete history and physical examination.

Taping or splinting of sternal fractures is contraindicated, as restriction of normal chest expansion during respiration can lead to atelectasis and pulmonary insufficiency.

Adequate analgesia is the treatment of choice, both during initial care and subsequently during the recovery period.

Encouragement of deep breathing decreases pulmonary complications during recovery.



Consult a trauma surgeon when serious associated injury is diagnosed or suspected.

Surgical fixation for sternal fractures is generally unnecessary, although a recent study suggests that a more rapid recovery can be made if painful unstable fractures are fixated early rather than allowing them to heal over time.[15, 16, 17]


Medical Care

Numerous studies demonstrate that admission for isolated sternal fracture is not generally necessary unless associated injuries or social situations require such considerations.[18, 15, 19, 20]

One study suggests that patients with pain that is difficult to control with outpatient analgesics should be considered for admission and be given a continuous infusion of an anesthetic via a subperiosteal catheter.[21] Improved respiratory function was noted with this technique; however, it may not be readily available at most sites.

Consider at least an observation admission for elderly persons with chest wall fractures because these patients are at increased risk for respiratory compromise and atelectasis.



Complications may arise from associated injuries. During evaluation of these patients, carefully assess for cardiac, pulmonary, mediastinal, and thoracic spine injuries, as well as associated injuries unrelated to chest trauma.

Cardiac contusion is much less common than once thought; its incidence currently ranges from 6-18% based on severity of trauma.

Traumatic aortic injury occurs in fewer than 2% of sternal fractures, a rate similar to that in patients with blunt chest trauma without sternal fracture.

Nonunion of sternal fractures is very rare. Painful pseudoarthroses occur when a false joint develops secondary to failed union of a fracture and may require delayed surgical repair. Similarly, overlap deformities may require delayed surgical repair.

A posttraumatic mediastinal abscess is very uncommon. Risk factors include the presence of a large hematoma, intravenous drug abuse, and another source of a staphylococcal infection. Treatment is open debridement.

Contributor Information and Disclosures

Scott Felten, MD, FACEP Residency Director for Emergency Medicine Physicians, Attending Physician, Emergency Medicine Physicians, St Francis Medical Center

Scott Felten, MD, FACEP is a member of the following medical societies: American College of Emergency Physicians

Disclosure: Nothing to disclose.


Mark S Slabinski, MD, FACEP, FAAEM Vice President, EMP Medical Group

Mark S Slabinski, MD, FACEP, FAAEM is a member of the following medical societies: Alpha Omega Alpha, American Academy of Emergency Medicine, American College of Emergency Physicians, American Medical Association, Ohio State Medical Association

Disclosure: Nothing to disclose.

Mark B Sigler, MD Resident Physician, Department of Emergency Medicine, University of Oklahoma College of Medicine, Tulsa

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.

David B Levy, DO, FAAEM Senior Consultant in Emergency Medicine, Waikato District Health Board, New Zealand; Associate Professor of Emergency Medicine, Northeastern Ohio Universities College of Medicine

David B Levy, DO, FAAEM is a member of the following medical societies: American Academy of Emergency Medicine, Fellowship of the Australasian College for Emergency Medicine, American Medical Informatics Association, Society for Academic Emergency Medicine

Disclosure: Nothing to disclose.

Chief Editor

Trevor John Mills, MD, MPH Chief of Emergency Medicine, Veterans Affairs Northern California Health Care System; Professor of Emergency Medicine, Department of Emergency Medicine, University of California, Davis, School of Medicine

Trevor John Mills, MD, MPH is a member of the following medical societies: American Academy of Emergency Medicine, American College of Emergency Physicians

Disclosure: Nothing to disclose.


Michelle Ervin, MD Chair, Department of Emergency Medicine, Howard University Hospital

Michelle Ervin, MD is a member of the following medical societies: American Academy of Emergency Medicine, American College of Emergency Physicians, American Medical Association, National Medical Association, and Society for Academic Emergency Medicine

Disclosure: Nothing to disclose.

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Posterior surface of the sternum.
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