Last week I discussed the importance of treating rib fractures in older patients with the greatest respect. One reader commented:
“number of rib fratures are not that accurate by x-ray. If further evaluate by CT, more fractures will be identified”
Well, I agree and I disagree. Chest xray is notoriously inaccurate when it comes to diagnosing or counting rib fractures. Some older studies have shown that a plain chest xray may miss as many as 50% of all rib fractures. On the other hand, CT scan is very accurate at diagnosing them.
But the question is, do we need to know exactly how many ribs are fractured? In general, the answer is no. Rib fracture is a clinical diagnosis. A patient with an appropriate mechanism and focal tenderness on the chest wall has a rib fracture unless proven otherwise. Do we need to prove otherwise? No. They still have pain, and it still needs to be treated. The degree of pain and pulmonary impairment determines the need for admission and more advanced therapies, not an exact count of ribs fractured.
Bottom line: Rib fracture is a clinical diagnosis! CT scan of the chest for diagnosing rib fractures (or pneumothorax, or hemothorax for that matter) is basically not indicated. It delivers a lot of radiation (and IV contrast if you mistakenly order it), but does not change management. For blunt trauma, CT of the chest should only be used for screening for aortic injury. The only possible indication I can think of is to plan ORIF of complicated, displaced rib fractures. But in that case, let your surgical specialist decide if the test is really necessary.