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Why Doctors are Using a Surgical Treatment for Rib Fractures

October 13, 2016

Rib fractures usually occur after traumatic injury. Ten percent of all patients with blunt chest trauma have at least one rib fracture.

Rib fractures occur when one or more bones in your rib cage breaks. Three million people a year experience this treatable injury, which usually takes several weeks to heal, depending on the severity. Rib fractures are common among injured trauma patients and frequently cause significant pain, lung collapse, pneumonia, and in some cases, long-term disability. Here’s what you need to know about rib fractures and how we treat them:

Causes of Rib Fractures

Though trauma is a significant cause of rib fractures, they can occur for a variety of reasons. Seniors may fracture their ribs after a slip or fall and young people may experience this injury during sports competition or recreational activities. Cancers, such a breast cancer or prostate cancer, that spread to the bone can weaken the rib bones and lead to a break, while rheumatoid arthritis, a chronic cough and even CPR can cause this injury. Weight lifters or those whose job involve regular heavily lifting also are susceptible to rib fractures.

Your ribs are very thin compared to other bones in your body. The signs of a rib fracture usually are obvious. You may experience swelling and bruising in the chest area, pain when you breathe, shortness of breath and could cough up blood. The latter symptom is a sign that the rib fracture also may have damaged your lung, since the fractured end of the rib is sharp enough to puncture this organ.

Treatment for Rib Fractures

Rib fractures usually heal on their own with rest and supportive therapy. Various pain management strategies also are used to help patients, some with limited success. However, effective pain control is essential to maintain adequate lung expansion.

Surgical fixating (also called rib plating) has been performed for many years. The procedure, which involves placing a metal or absorbable plate to stabilize and hold the ribs in the correct position while they heal, has recently become a popular alternative treatment for this injury — even though it was once considered controversial for certain medical uses. Surgical fixation is becoming the standard of care for patients with multiple displaced rib fractures and for patients with a severe deformity in the chest wall or flail chest, a life-threatening condition that occurs when a section of the ribs separates from the chest wall. Research suggests that surgical fixation results in improved pain, fewer days on the ventilator, lower rates of pneumonia, shorter hospital stays and lower health care costs.

Rib fractures can take around six weeks to heal. If you’ve experienced a rib fracture, you should take a break for a few weeks from heavy lifting, sports or from resuming the activity that caused the fracture in the first place. This will give your body time to heal. When you’re no longer in pain, you can begin to increase your level of physical activity, but you should ease back into your routine. Elderly adults who experience rib fractures are at greater risk for pneumonia and death as a result of these injuries, so if you are over 65 and experience any of the symptoms I previously mentioned after a fall, go to the emergency room as soon as possible and get treatment before the injury develops into something more serious.