Blunt Chest Trauma Treatment & Management

Updated: Nov 10, 2022
  • Author: Mary C Mancini, MD, PhD, MMM; Chief Editor: John Geibel, MD, MSc, DSc, AGAF  more...
  • Print

Approach Considerations

Indications for operative intervention

Operative intervention is rarely necessary in blunt thoracic injuries. In one report, only 8% of cases with blunt thoracic injuries required an operation. Most such injuries can be treated with supportive measures and simple interventional procedures such as tube thoracostomy.

Indications for surgical intervention in blunt traumatic injuries may be categorized according to the classification system previously described (see Presentation). These indications may be further stratified into conditions necessitating an immediate operation and those in which surgery is needed for delayed manifestations or complications of trauma.

Chest-wall fractures, dislocations, and barotrauma (including diaphragmatic injuries)

Indications for immediate surgery include the following:

  • Traumatic disruption with loss of chest-wall integrity
  • Blunt diaphragmatic injuries

Relatively immediate and long-term indications for surgery include the following:

  • Delayed recognition of blunt diaphragmatic injury
  • Development of a traumatic diaphragmatic hernia

Blunt injuries of pleurae, lungs, and aerodigestive tract

Indications for immediate surgery include the following:

  • Massive air leak following chest-tube insertion
  • Massive hemothorax or continued high rate of blood loss via the chest tube (ie, 1500 mL of blood upon chest-tube insertion or continued loss of 250 mL/hr for 3 consecutive hours)
  • Radiographically or endoscopically confirmed tracheal, major bronchial, or esophageal injury
  • Recovery of gastrointestinal (GI) tract contents via the chest tube

Relatively immediate and long-term indications for surgery include the following:

  • Chronic clotted hemothorax or fibrothorax, especially when associated with a trapped or nonexpanding lung
  • Empyema
  • Traumatic lung abscess
  • Delayed recognition of tracheobronchial or esophageal injury
  • Tracheoesophageal fistula
  • Persistent thoracic duct fistula/chylothorax

Blunt injuries to heart, great arteries, veins, and lymphatic vessels

Indications for immediate surgery include the following:

  • Cardiac tamponade
  • Radiographic confirmation of a great-vessel injury
  • Embolism into the pulmonary artery or the heart

Relatively immediate and long-term indications for surgery include the late recognition of a great-vessel injury (eg, development of traumatic pseudoaneurysm).

Contraindications for operative intervention

No distinct, absolute contraindications exist for surgery in blunt thoracic trauma. Rather, guidelines have been instituted to define which patients have clear indications for surgery (eg, massive hemothorax, continued high rates of blood loss via chest tube).

A controversial area has been the use of emergency department (ED) thoracotomy in patients with blunt trauma who present without vital signs. The results of this approach in this particular patient population have been dismal and have led many authors to condemn it. (See Guidelines. [28] )


Chest-Wall Fractures, Dislocations, and Barotrauma

Rib fractures

Rib fractures are the most common blunt thoracic injuries. Ribs 4-10 are the ones most frequently involved. Patients usually report inspiratory chest pain and discomfort over the fractured rib or ribs. Physical findings include local tenderness and crepitus over the site of the fracture. If a pneumothorax is present, breath sounds may be decreased and resonance to percussion may be increased.

Rib fractures may also be a marker for other associated significant injury, both intrathoracic and extrathoracic. In one report, 50% of patients with blunt cardiac injury have rib fractures. Fractures of ribs 8-12 should raise the suggestion of associated abdominal injuries. Lee et al reported a 1.4- and 1.7-fold increase in the incidence of splenic and hepatic injury, respectively, in those with rib fractures.

Elderly patients with three or more rib fractures have been shown to have a fivefold increase in mortality and a fourfold increase in the incidence of pneumonia.

Effective pain control is the cornerstone of medical therapy for patients with rib fractures. For most patients, this consists of oral or parenteral analgesic agents. Intercostal nerve blocks may be feasible for those with severe pain who do not have numerous rib fractures. A local anesthetic with a relatively long duration of action (eg, bupivacaine) can be used. Patients with multiple rib fractures whose pain is difficult to control can be treated with epidural analgesia.

Adjunctive measures in the care of these patients include early mobilization and aggressive pulmonary toilet. Rib fractures typically do not require surgery. Pain relief and the establishment of adequate ventilation are the therapeutic goals.

There has been increasing interest in open reduction and internal fixation (ORIF) in selected patients with rib fractures, [29] though the patient subset that would benefit most has not been fully defined. The Eastern Association for the Surgery of Trauma (EAST) conditionally recommended ORIF of rib fractures in adult patients with flail chest to reduce mortality, duration of mechanical ventilation, length of stay in the hospital or intensive care unit (ICU), incidence of pneumonia, and need for tracheostomy. [30] ; no recommendation was made for pain control or for any of the outcomes in patients without flail chest. It remains to be determined what role operative fixation may play in this setting. [31]

Rarely, a fractured rib lacerates an intercostal artery or other vessel, resulting in the need for surgical control to achieve hemostasis acutely. In the chronic phase, nonunion and persistent pain may also necessitate an operation.

Flail chest

A flail chest, by definition, involves three or more consecutive rib fractures in two or more places, which produce a free-floating, unstable segment of chest wall. Separation of the bony ribs from their cartilaginous attachments, termed costochondral separation, can also cause flail chest.

Patients report pain at the fracture sites, pain upon inspiration, and, frequently, dyspnea. Physical examination reveals paradoxical motion of the flail segment. The chest wall moves inward with inspiration and outward with expiration. Tenderness at the fracture sites is the rule. Dyspnea, tachypnea, and tachycardia may be present. The patient may overtly exhibit labored respiration due to the increased work of breathing induced by the paradoxical motion of the flail segment.

A significant amount of force is required to produce a flail segment. Therefore, associated injuries are common and should be aggressively sought. The clinician should specifically be aware of the high incidence of associated thoracic injuries such as pulmonary contusions and closed head injuries, which, in combination, significantly increase the mortality associated with flail chest.

All of the treatments mentioned above for rib fractures are suitable for flail chest. Respiratory distress or insufficiency can ensue in some patients with flail chest because of severe pain secondary to the multiple rib fractures, the increased work of breathing, and the associated pulmonary contusion. This may necessitate endotracheal intubation and positive-pressure mechanical ventilation. Intravenous fluids are administered judiciously; fluid overloading can precipitate respiratory failure, especially in those with significant pulmonary contusions.

To stabilize the chest wall and avoid endotracheal intubation and mechanical ventilation, various operations have been devised for correcting flail chest (eg, pericostal sutures, application of external fixation devices, and placement of plates or pins for internal fixation). With improved understanding of pulmonary mechanics and better mechanical ventilatory support, surgical therapy has not proved superior to supportive and medical measures. [31] Most authors, however, would agree that stabilization is warranted if thoracotomy is indicated for another reason.

The EAST has published a practice management guideline on the management of flail chest and pulmonary contusion. [32]  (See Guidelines.)

First- and second-rib fractures

First- and second-rib fractures are considered a separate entity from other rib fractures because of the excessive energy transfer required to injure these sturdy and well-protected structures. First- and second-rib fractures are harbingers of associated cranial, major vascular, thoracic, and abdominal injuries. The clinician should aggressively seek to exclude the presence of these other injuries.

Pain control and pulmonary toilet are the specific treatment measures for rib fractures. First- and second-rib fractures do not require surgical therapy. An exception to this would be the need to excise a greatly displaced bone fragment.

Clavicular fractures

Clavicular fractures are among the most common injuries to the shoulder-girdle area. Common mechanisms include a direct blow to the shaft of the bone, a fall on an outstretched hand, and a direct lateral fall against the shoulder. Approximately 75-80% of clavicular fractures occur in the middle third of the bone. Patients report tenderness over the fracture site and pain with movement of the ipsilateral shoulder or arm.

Physical findings include anteroinferior positioning of the ipsilateral arm as compared with the contralateral arm. The proximal segment of the clavicle is displaced superiorly because of the action of the sternocleidomastoid.

Nearly all clavicular fractures can be managed without surgery. Primary treatment consists of immobilization with a figure-eight dressing, a clavicle strap, or a similar dressing or sling. Oral analgesics can be used to control pain. Surgery is rarely indicated. Surgical intervention is occasionally indicated for the reduction of a badly displaced fracture.

Sternoclavicular joint dislocations

Strong lateral compressive forces against the shoulder can cause sternoclavicular joint dislocation. Anterior dislocation is more common than posterior dislocation. Patients report pain with arm motion or when a compressive force is applied against the affected shoulder. The ipsilateral arm and shoulder may be anteroinferiorly displaced. With anterior dislocations, the medial end of the clavicle can become more prominent. With posterior dislocations, a depression may be discernible adjacent to the sternum. Associated injuries to the trachea, subclavian vessels, or brachial plexus can occur with posterior dislocations.

Closed or open reduction is generally advised. Treatment strategies depend on whether the patient has an anterior or posterior dislocation.

For anterior dislocations, local anesthesia and sedative medications are administered, and lateral traction is applied to the affected arm that is placed in abduction and extension. This maneuver, combined with direct pressure over the medial clavicle, can occasionally reduce an anterior dislocation. For posterior dislocations, a penetrating towel clip can be used to grasp the medial clavicle to provide the necessary purchase for anterior manual traction to reduce the joint. Proper levels of pain control, up to and including general anesthesia, are provided. If closed reduction fails, open reduction is performed.

Sternal fractures

Most sternal fractures are caused by motor vehicle accidents (MVAs). The upper and middle thirds of the bone are most commonly affected in a transverse fashion. Patients report pain around the injured area. Inspiratory pain or a sense of dyspnea may be present. Physical examination reveals local tenderness and swelling. Ecchymosis is noted in the area around the fracture. A palpable defect or fracture-related crepitus may be present.

Associated injuries occur in 55-70% of patients with sternal fractures. The most common associated injuries are rib fractures, long-bone fractures, and closed head injuries. The association of blunt cardiac injuries with sternal fractures has been a source of great debate. Blunt cardiac injuries are diagnosed in fewer than 20% of patients with sternal fractures. Caution should be exercised before myocardial injury is completely excluded. The workup should begin with electrocardiography (ECG).

Most sternal fractures require no therapy specifically directed at correcting the injury. Patients are treated with analgesics and are advised to minimize activities that involve the use of pectoral and shoulder-girdle muscles. The most important aspect of the care for these patients is to exclude blunt myocardial and other associated injuries.

Patients who are experiencing severe pain related to the fracture and those with a badly displaced fracture are candidates for ORIF. Various techniques have been described, including wire suturing and the placement of plates and screws. The latter technique is associated with better outcomes.

Scapular fractures

Scapular fractures are uncommon. Their main clinical importance is the high-energy forces required to produce them and the attendant high incidence of associated injuries. The rate of associated injuries is 75-100%, most commonly involving the head, chest, or abdomen.

Patients with scapular fractures report pain around the scapula. Tenderness, swelling, ecchymosis, and fracture-related crepitus can all be present. The fracture is most frequently located in the body or neck of the scapula. More than 30% of scapular fractures are missed during the initial patient evaluation. The discovery of a scapular fracture should prompt a concerted effort to exclude major vascular injuries and injuries of the thorax, abdomen, and neurovascular bundle of the ipsilateral arm.

Shoulder immobilization is the standard initial treatment. This can be accomplished by placing the arm in a sling or shoulder harness. Range-of-motion (ROM) exercises are started as soon as possible to help prevent loss of shoulder mobility. Surgery is infrequently indicated. Involvement of the glenoid, acromion, or coracoid may require ORIF with the goal of maintaining proper shoulder mobility.

Scapulothoracic dissociation

Sometimes called flail shoulder, this rare injury occurs when very strong traction forces pull the scapula and other elements of the shoulder girdle away from the thorax. The muscular, vascular, and nervous components of the shoulder and arm are severely compromised. Physical findings include significant hematoma formation and edema in the shoulder area. Neurologic deficits include loss of sensation and motor function distal to the shoulder. Pulses in the arm are typically decreased or lost as a consequence of axillary artery thrombosis.

No specific medical therapy has been developed for this devastating injury. Surgery is rarely indicated early in the course of the injury. If the affected limb retains sufficient neurovascular integrity and function, operative fixation may be indicated to restore shoulder stability. Many scapulothoracic dissociations result in a flail limb that is insensate or is associated with severe pain due to proximal brachial plexus injury. An above-elbow amputation may be the best approach for these patients.

Chest-wall defects

The management of large open chest-wall defects initially requires irrigation and debridement of devitalized tissue to prevent progression into a necrotizing wound infection. Once the infection is under control, subsequent treatment depends on the severity and level of defect. Reconstructive options range from skin grafting to well-vascularized flaps to a variety of meshes with or without methylmethacrylate. The choice of reconstruction depends upon the depth of the defect.

Traumatic asphyxia

The curious clinical constellation known as traumatic asphyxia is the result of thoracic injury due to a strong crushing mechanism, such as might occur when an individual is pinned under a very heavy object. Some effects of the injury are compounded if the glottis is closed during application of the crushing force.

Patients present with cyanosis of the head and neck, subconjunctival hemorrhage, periorbital ecchymosis, and petechiae of the head and neck. The face frequently appears very edematous or moonlike. Epistaxis and hemotympanum may be present. A history of loss of consciousness, seizures, or blindness may be elicited. Neurologic sequelae are usually transient. Recognition of this syndrome should prompt a search for associated thoracic and abdominal injuries.

The head of the patient's bed should be elevated to approximately 30° to decrease transmission of pressure to the head. Adequate airway and ventilatory status must be assured, and the patient is given supplemental oxygen. Serial neurologic examinations are performed while the patient is monitored in an intensive care setting. No specific surgical therapy is indicated for traumatic asphyxia. Associated injuries to the torso and head frequently necessitate surgical intervention.

Blunt diaphragmatic injuries

Diaphragmatic injuries are relatively uncommon. Blunt mechanisms, usually a result of high-speed MVAs, cause approximately 33% of diaphragmatic injuries. Most diaphragmatic injuries recognized clinically involve the left side, though autopsy and computed tomography (CT)-based investigations suggest a roughly equal incidence for both sides.

This injury should be considered in patients who sustain a blow to the abdomen and present with dyspnea or respiratory distress. Because of the very high incidence of associated injuries (eg, major splenic or hepatic trauma), it is not unusual for these patients to present with hypovolemic shock.

Most diaphragmatic injuries are diagnosed incidentally at the time of laparotomy or thoracotomy for associated intra-abdominal or intrathoracic injuries. Initial chest radiographs are normal. Findings suggestive of diaphragmatic disruption on chest radiographs may include abnormal location of the nasogastric tube in the chest, ipsilateral hemidiaphragm elevation, or abdominal visceral herniation into the chest.

In a patient with multiple injuries, CT is not very accurate, and magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) is not very realistic. Bedside emergency ultrasonography is gaining popularity, and case reports in the literature have supported its use in the evaluation of the diaphragm. Diagnostic laparoscopy and thoracoscopy have also been reported to be successful in the identification of diaphragmatic injury.

A confirmed diagnosis or the suggestion of blunt diaphragmatic injury is an indication for surgery. Blunt diaphragmatic injuries typically produce large tears measuring 5-10 cm or longer. Most injuries are best approached via laparotomy. An abdominal approach facilitates exposure of the injury and allows exploration for associated abdominal organ injuries. The exception to this rule is a posterolateral injury of the right hemidiaphragm. This injury is best approached through the chest because the liver obscures the abdominal approach.

Most injuries can be repaired primarily with a continuous or interrupted braided suture (1-0 or larger). Centrally located injuries are most easily repaired. Lateral injuries near the chest wall may require reattachment of the diaphragm to the chest wall by encirclement of the ribs with suture during the repair. Synthetic mesh made of polypropylene or Dacron is occasionally needed to repair large defects. [33, 34]


Blunt Injuries to Pleurae, Lungs, and Aerodigestive Tract


Pneumothoraces in blunt thoracic trauma are most frequently caused when a fractured rib penetrates the lung parenchyma. However, this is not an absolute rule. Pneumothoraces can result from deceleration or barotrauma to the lung without associated rib fractures.

Patients report inspiratory pain or dyspnea and pain at the sites of the rib fractures. Physical examination demonstrates decreased breath sounds and hyperresonance to percussion over the affected hemithorax. In practice, many patients with traumatic pneumothoraces also have some element of hemorrhage, producing a hemopneumothorax.

Patients with pneumothoraces require pain control and pulmonary toilet. All patients with pneumothoraces due to trauma need a tube thoracostomy. The chest tube is connected to a collection system (eg, Pleur-evac) that is entrained to suction at a pressure of approximately –20 cm H2O. Suction continues until no air leak is detected. The tube is then disconnected from suction and placed to water seal. If the lung remains fully expanded, the tube may be removed and another chest radiograph obtained to ensure continued complete lung expansion.

A prospective, observational, multicenter study sought to determine which factors predicted failed observation in blunt trauma patients. [35]  Using data from 569 blunt trauma patients, the study identified 588 with an occult pneumothorax (OPTX); one group underwent immediate tube thoracostomy, and the second group was observed.

Patients in whom observation failed spent more days on ventilators and had longer hospital and intensive care unit lengths of stay; 15% developed complications. [35]  No patient in this group developed a tension pneumothorax or experienced adverse events by delaying tube thoracostomy. The investigators concluded that whereas most blunt trauma patients with OPTX can be carefully monitored without tube thoracostomy, OPTX progression and respiratory distress were significant predictors of failed observation.

Open pneumothorax

Open pneumothorax is more commonly caused by penetrating mechanisms but may rarely occur with blunt thoracic trauma.

Patients are typically in respiratory distress due to collapse of the lung on the affected side. Physical examination should reveal a chest-wall defect that is larger than the cross-sectional area of the larynx. The affected hemithorax demonstrates a significant-to-complete loss of breath sounds. The increased intrathoracic pressure can shift the contents of the mediastinum to the opposite side, decreasing the return of blood to the heart, potentially leading to hemodynamic instability.

Treatment for an open pneumothorax consists of placing a three-way occlusive dressing over the wound to preclude continued ingress of air into the hemithorax and to allow egress of air from the chest cavity. A tube thoracostomy is then performed. Pain control and pulmonary toilet measures are applied.

After initial stabilization, most patients with open pneumothoraces and loss of chest-wall integrity undergo operative wound debridement and closure. Those with loss of large chest-wall segments may need reconstruction and closure with prosthetic devices (eg, polytetrafluoroethylene patches). Patch placement can serve as definitive therapy or as a bridge to formal closure with rotational or free tissue flaps.

For low chest-wall injuries, some authors describe detachment of the diaphragm, with operative reattachment at a higher intrathoracic level. This converts the open chest wound into an open abdominal wound, which is easier to manage.

Traumatic pulmonary herniation through the ribs, though uncommon, may occur after chest trauma. Unless incarceration or infarction is evident, immediate repair is not indicated.

Tension pneumothorax

The mechanisms that produce tension pneumothoraces are the same as those that produce simple pneumothoraces. However, with a tension pneumothorax, air continues to leak from an underlying pulmonary parenchymal injury, increasing pressure within the affected hemithorax.

Patients are typically in respiratory distress. Breath sounds are severely diminished to absent, and the hemithorax is hyperresonant to percussion. The trachea is deviated away from the side of the injury. The mediastinal contents are shifted away from the affected side. This results in decreased venous return of blood to the heart. The patient exhibits signs of hemodynamic instability, such as hypotension, which can rapidly progress to complete cardiovascular collapse.

Immediate therapy for this life-threatening condition includes decompression of the affected hemithorax by means of needle thoracostomy. A large-bore (ie, 14- to 16-gauge) needle is inserted through the second intercostal space in the midclavicular line. A tube thoracostomy is then performed. Pain control and pulmonary toilet are instituted.


Accumulation of blood within the pleural space can be due to bleeding from the chest wall (eg, lacerations of the intercostal or internal mammary vessels attributable to fractures of chest wall elements) or to hemorrhage from the lung parenchyma or major thoracic vessels.

Patients report pain and dyspnea. Physical examination findings vary with the extent of the hemothorax. Most hemothoraces are associated with a decrease in breath sounds and dullness to percussion over the affected area. Massive hemothoraces due to major vascular injuries manifest with the aforementioned physical findings and varying degrees of hemodynamic instability.

Hemothoraces are evacuated by means of tube thoracostomy. Multiple chest tubes may be required. Pain control and aggressive pulmonary toilet are provided. Tube output is monitored closely. Indications for surgery can be based on the initial and cumulative hourly chest tube drainage, in that massive initial output and continued high hourly output are frequently associated with thoracic vascular injuries that require surgical intervention.

Large, clotted hemothoraces may necessitate an operation for evacuation to allow full expansion of the lung and to avoid the development of other complications such as fibrothorax and empyema. Thoracoscopic approaches have been used successfully in the management of this problem. [36]

Pulmonary contusion and other parenchymal injuries

The forces associated with blunt thoracic trauma can be transmitted to the lung parenchyma. This results in pulmonary contusion, characterized by development of pulmonary infiltrates with hemorrhage into the lung tissue.

Clinical findings in pulmonary contusion depend on the extent of the injury. Patients present with varying degrees of respiratory difficulty. Physical examination demonstrates decreased breath sounds over the affected area. Other parenchymal injuries (eg, lacerations) can be produced by fractured ribs and, rarely, by deceleration mechanisms.

Pain control, pulmonary toilet, and supplemental oxygen are the primary therapies for pulmonary contusions and other parenchymal injuries. If the injury involves a large amount of parenchyma, significant pulmonary shunting and dead-space ventilation may develop, necessitating endotracheal intubation and mechanical ventilation.

Laceration or avulsion injuries that cause massive hemothoraces or prolonged high rates of bloody chest-tube output may require thoracotomy for surgical control of bleeding vessels. If central bleeding is identified during thoracotomy, hilar control is gained first. Once the extent of injury is confirmed, it may become necessary to perform a pneumonectomy, with the caveat that trauma pneumonectomy is generally associated with a high mortality (>50%). [37]

The EAST has published a practice management guideline on the management of pulmonary contusion and flail chest. [32]  (See Guidelines.)

Blunt tracheal injuries

Although the incidence of blunt tracheobronchial injuries is low (1-3%), most patients with such injuries die before reaching the hospital. These injuries include fractures, lacerations, and disruptions. Blunt trauma most often produces fractures. These injuries are devastating and are frequently caused by severe rapid deceleration or compressive forces applied directly to the trachea between the sternum and vertebrae.

Patients are in respiratory distress. They typically cannot phonate and frequently present with stridor. Other physical signs include an associated pneumothorax and massive subcutaneous emphysema.

Blunt tracheal injuries are immediately life-threatening and require surgical repair. Bronchoscopy is required to make the definitive diagnosis. The first therapeutic maneuver is the establishment of an adequate airway. If airway compromise is present or probable, a definitive airway is established.

Endotracheal intubation remains the preferred route if feasible. This can be facilitated by arming a flexible bronchoscope with an endotracheal tube and performing the intubation under direct bronchoscopic guidance. The tube must be placed distal to the site of injury. Always be prepared to perform an emergency tracheotomy or cricothyroidotomy to establish an airway if this fails. These maneuvers are best performed in the controlled environment of an operating room.

The operative approach to repair of a blunt tracheal injury includes debridement of the fracture site and restoration of airway continuity with a primary end-to-end anastomosis. Defects of 3 cm or larger frequently require proximal and distal mobilization of the trachea to reduce tension on the anastomosis. The type of incision made for repairing the tracheal injury is determined by the level and extent of injury and the involvement of other thoracic organs.

Blunt bronchial injuries

Rapid deceleration is the most common mechanism causing major blunt bronchial injuries. Many of these patients die of inadequate ventilation or severe associated injuries before definitive therapy can be provided.

Patients are in respiratory distress and present with physical signs consistent with a massive pneumothorax. Ipsilateral breath sounds are severely diminished to absent, and the hemithorax is hyperresonant to percussion. Subcutaneous emphysema may be present and may be massive. Hemodynamic instability may be present and is caused by tension pneumothorax or massive blood loss from associated injuries.

Laceration, tear, or disruption of a major bronchus is life-threatening. These injuries require surgical repair. As with tracheal injuries, establishment of a secure and adequate airway is of primary importance.

Patients with major bronchial lacerations or avulsions have massive air leaks. The approach to repair of these injuries is ipsilateral thoracotomy on the affected side after single-lung ventilation is established on the uninjured side. Some patients cannot tolerate this and require jet-insufflation techniques. Operative repair consists of debridement of the injury and construction of a primary end-to-end anastomosis.

Blunt esophageal injuries

Because of the relatively protected location of the esophagus in the posterior mediastinum, blunt injuries to this organ are rare. Blunt esophageal injuries are usually caused by a sudden increase in esophageal luminal pressure resulting from a forceful blow. Injury occurs predominantly in the cervical region; rarely, intrathoracic and subdiaphragmatic ruptures are also encountered.

Associated injuries to other organs are common. Physical clues to the diagnosis may include subcutaneous emphysema, pneumomediastinum, pneumothorax, or intra-abdominal free air. Patients who present a significant time after the injury may manifest signs and symptoms of systemic sepsis.

General medical supportive measures are appropriate. Fluid resuscitation and broad-spectrum intravenous antibiotics with activity against gram-positive organisms and anaerobic oral flora are administered. Surgery is required.

Injuries identified within 24 hours of their occurrence are treated by debridement and primary closure. Some surgeons choose to reinforce these repairs with autologous tissue. Wide mediastinal drainage is established with multiple chest tubes.

If more than 24 hours has passed since injury, primary repair buttressed by well-vascularized autologous tissue is still the best option if technically feasible. Examples of tissues used to reinforce esophageal repairs include parietal pleura and intercostal muscle. Very distal esophageal injuries can be covered with a tongue of gastric fundus. This is called a Thal patch.

For patients in poor general condition and those with advanced mediastinitis or severe associated injuries, the most prudent choice is esophageal exclusion and diversion. A cervical esophagostomy is made, the distal esophagus is stapled, the stomach is decompressed via gastrostomy, and a feeding jejunostomy tube is placed. Wide mediastinal drainage is established with multiple chest tubes.


Blunt Injuries to Heart, Great Arteries, Veins, and Lymphatic Vessels

Blunt pericardial injuries

Isolated blunt pericardial injuries are rare. Blunt mechanisms produce pericardial tears that can result in herniation of the heart and associated decrements in cardiac output. Physical examination may elicit a pericardial rub.

Most blunt pericardial injuries can be closed by simple pericardiorrhaphy. Large defects that cannot be closed primarily without tension can usually be left open or be patch-repaired.

Blunt cardiac injuries

MVAs are the most common cause of blunt cardiac injuries. Falls, crush injuries, acts of violence, and sporting injuries are other causes. Blunt cardiac injuries range from mild trauma associated only with transient arrhythmias to rupture of the valve mechanisms, interventricular septum, or myocardium (cardiac chamber rupture).

Therefore, patients can be asymptomatic or can manifest signs and symptoms ranging from chest pain to cardiac tamponade (eg, muffled heart tones, jugular venous distention, hypotension) to complete cardiovascular collapse and shock due to rapid exsanguination.

Many patients with blunt cardiac injuries do not require specific therapy. Those who develop an arrhythmia are treated with the appropriate antiarrhythmic drug. Elaboration on these drugs and their administration is beyond the scope of this article.

Patients with severe blunt cardiac injuries who survive to reach the hospital require surgery. Most patients in this group have cardiac chamber rupture due to a high-speed MVA. Right-side involvement is most common, involving the right atrium and right ventricle. These patients present with signs and symptoms of cardiac tamponade or exsanguinating hemorrhage. A few may be stable initially, and diagnosis may be delayed as a result.

Those with tamponade benefit from rapid pericardiocentesis or surgical creation of a subxiphoid window. The next step is to repair the cardiac chamber via cardiorrhaphy. Cardiopulmonary bypass techniques can facilitate this procedure. Unstable patients may benefit from insertion of an intra-aortic counterpulsation balloon pump.

Commotio cordis or sudden cardiac death in an otherwise healthy individual generally results from participation in a sporting event or some form of recreational activity. It is a direct result of blow to the heart just before the T-wave, resulting in ventricular fibrillation. Survival is not unheard of, provided that resuscitation and defibrillation are started within minutes. Preventive strategies include wearing chest-protective gear during sporting activities. [38, 39, 40]

Blunt injuries to thoracic aorta and major thoracic arteries

High-speed MVAs are the most common cause of blunt injuries to the thoracic aorta and the major thoracic arteries. Falls from heights and MVAs involving a pedestrian are other recognized causes. Injury mechanisms include rapid deceleration, production of shearing forces, and direct luminal compression against points of fixation (especially at the ligamentum arteriosum). Many of these patients die of vessel rupture and rapid exsanguination at the scene or before reaching definitive care. Blunt aortic injuries follow closely behind head injury as a cause of death after blunt trauma.

Important historical details include the exact mechanism of injury and estimates of the amount of energy transferred to the patient (eg, magnitude of deceleration). Other important details include whether the victim was ejected from a vehicle or thrown if struck by a vehicle, the height of the fall, and whether other fatalities occurred at the scene.

Physical clues include signs of significant chest-wall trauma (eg, scapular fractures, first- or second-rib fractures, sternal fractures, steering wheel imprint), hypotension, upper-extremity blood pressure differential, loss of upper- or lower-extremity pulses, and thoracic spine fractures. Signs of cardiac tamponade may be present. Decreased breath sounds and dullness to percussion due to massive hemothorax can also be found.

As many as 50% of patients with these devastating, life-threatening injuries have no overt external signs of injury. Therefore, a high index of suspicion is warranted for earlier intervention.

The management of these injuries, especially those of the thoracic aorta, is evolving. Many patients undergo delayed repair of contained descending thoracic aortic ruptures. This approach is most frequently used when severe associated injuries are present that require urgent correction.

Temporizing medical therapy includes the administration of short-acting beta-blockers (eg, labetalol, esmolol) to control the heart rate and to decrease the mean arterial pressure to approximately 60 mm Hg.

Because repair of thoracic aortic injuries using cardiopulmonary bypass is associated with fewer major neurologic complications, some authors advocate stabilization of the victim plus beta-blocker administration until it is feasible to transfer the patient to a facility where the injury can be repaired by means of cardiopulmonary bypass or centrifugal pump techniques. These techniques maintain distal aortic perfusion. Results have been excellent, and postoperative paraplegia rates have been significantly reduced. [41]

Endovascular stent grafts have been developed to repair thoracic aortic injuries. [42] Although several authors have reported success in treating such injuries with endovascular stents, the long-term durability of the stents remains to be established. Further experience with this technique will allow more victims with concomitant severe injuries to become operative candidates.

Techniques for repair of the innominate artery and subclavian vessels vary, depending on the type of injury. For many of these injuries, only lateral arteriorrhaphy is required. Large injuries of the innominate artery are managed first by placing a bypass graft from the ascending aorta to the distal innominate artery. The injury is then approached directly and is oversewn or patched. [43, 44, 45]

Proximal pulmonary arterial injuries are relatively easy to repair when in an anterior location. Posterior injuries frequently necessitate cardiopulmonary bypass. Pulmonary hilar injuries present the possibility of rapid exsanguination and are best treated with pneumonectomy. Peripheral pulmonary arterial injuries are approached easily by thoracotomy on the affected side. They may be repaired or the corresponding pulmonary lobe or segment may be resected.

The EAST has published a practice management guideline on the management of blunt traumatic aortic injury. [46] (See Guidelines.)

Blunt injuries to superior vena cava and major thoracic veins

Injuries limited to the major veins of the thorax are rare. These patients usually present with associated injuries to other major thoracic vascular structures. The clinical history, including mechanisms of injury, and the findings from physical examination are similar to those described for blunt injuries of the thoracic aorta and major thoracic arteries.

Major thoracic venous injuries are amenable to lateral venorrhaphy. If repair proves to be difficult or impossible, injured subclavian or azygos veins can be ligated. Injuries to the thoracic inferior vena cava (IVC) or superior vena cava (SVC) may require shunt placement or cardiopulmonary bypass to facilitate repair.

Blunt injuries to thoracic duct

Thoracic ductal injuries due to blunt mechanisms are rare. They are sometimes found in association with thoracic vertebral trauma. No signs or symptoms are specific for this injury at presentation. The diagnosis is usually delayed and is confirmed when a chest tube is inserted for a pleural effusion and returns chyle. This is termed a chylothorax.

Conservative management with chest-tube drainage is successful in most cases, effecting closure of the ductal injury without surgery. Chyle production can be decreased by maintaining the patient on total parenteral nutrition or by providing enteral nutrition with medium-chain triglycerides as the fat source.

If a fistula persists after an attempt at nonoperative management, thoracotomy is performed to identify and ligate the fistula. This is usually advisable after 2-3 weeks of persistent drainage or if the total lymphocyte count dwindles. Provision of a meal high in fat content (or ice cream) the night before the operation increases the volume of chyle and facilitates identification of the fistula.


General Surgical Approach

Patients with immediately life-threatening injuries that necessitate surgery cannot afford a protracted workup. At minimum, the ABCs (airay, breathing, and circulation) must be established. Frequently, resuscitation efforts in these patients must continue in transit to and in the operating room.

Those with indications for surgery but who are not in extremis should also have their ABCs established. On the basis of the mechanism of injury, clinical history, and physical findings, a search is conducted to exclude associated injuries. Diagnostic procedures (eg, cervical spine radiography; CT of the head, chest, and abdomen; and focused assessment with sonography for trauma [FAST]) are completed if time and the patient's condition permit . Blood is drawn and sent for typing, crossmatching, and other tests (eg, complete blood count and arterial blood gas analysis).

An adequate, secured airway is necessary, as is intravenous access. Monitoring devices (eg, a Foley urinary catheter, central venous pressure monitor, or pulmonary artery catheter) should be considered on the basis of the severity of injury, the patient's preoperative functional status, and the anticipated length of the operation. Some injuries may necessitate the use of single-lung ventilation techniques. This should be discussed with the anesthesiologist as early as possible.

Cardiopulmonary bypass or a centrifugal pump is used when necessary. Patient positioning and choice of incision are very important. A median sternotomy is used to access the heart, the intrapericardial portion of the pulmonary vessels, the ascending aorta and aortic arch, the SVC and IVC, and the innominate artery. Branches of the innominate artery are exposed by extending the median sternotomy into the neck.

A posterolateral left thoracotomy in the fourth intercostal space is used to approach the descending thoracic aorta. The right subclavian artery is exposed via a median sternotomy that is extended into the neck. Proximal control for the left subclavian artery is achieved through an anterolateral left thoracotomy in the third intercostal space. Distal control for this vessel is obtained through a supraclavicular incision.

The distal esophagus can be approached via a left posterolateral thoracotomy; more proximal injuries require a right thoracotomy. The thoracic duct is approached through a right thoracotomy.

Injuries to the lung or more peripheral pulmonary vessels are accessed through a posterolateral thoracotomy. Injuries to the proximal two thirds of the trachea are best approached through a collar incision and extension via a T-incision through the manubrium, which allows exposure to the middle and distal trachea. Injuries to the distal trachea, the carina, or the right mainstem bronchus are best approached through a right fourth intercostal posterolateral thoracotomy. Injuries to the left mainstem bronchus are best approached through a left posterolateral thoracotomy.


Postoperative Care

Patients are extubated as soon as feasible in the postoperative period. Monitoring devices are kept in place while needed but are removed as soon as possible.

Intravenous fluids are provided until the patient has had a return of GI function, at which time the patient can be fed. Patients with severe associated injuries, especially those in a coma, may require prolonged enteral tube feedings.

Pain control [47] is important in these patients because it facilitates breathing and helps to prevent pulmonary complications such as atelectasis and pneumonia. Chest physiotherapy and nebulizer treatments are used as necessary, and the use of an incentive spirometer is encouraged.

Chest tubes are placed for suction until fluid drainage has fallen sufficiently and the lung is completely expanded without evidence of air leak. Tubes may then be placed to water seal and may be removed if a chest radiograph demonstrates continued lung expansion.



Patients with blunt thoracic trauma are subject to myriad complications during the course of their care.

Wound complications include the following:

  • Wound infection
  • Wound dehiscence (particularly problematic in  sternal wounds)

Cardiac complications include the following:

Pulmonary and bronchial complications include the following:

Vascular complications include the following:

Neurologic complications include the following:

  • Causalgia (injuries that involve the brachial plexus)
  • Paraplegia (the spinal cord is at risk during repair of a ruptured thoracic aorta)
  • Stroke

Esophageal complications include the following:

Complications involving the bony skeleton include the following:

  • Skeletal deformity
  • Chronic pain
  • Impaired pulmonary mechanics

Long-Term Monitoring

After discharge, patients are monitored to ensure that adequate wound healing has occurred and to assess for the development of complications. Patients with vascular injuries and grafts may be monitored to ensure that complications such as pseudoaneurysms do not develop.