Tag Archives: rib fractures

Fixation of Rib Fractures

Yesterday, I wrote about nonoperative management of rib fractures. Currently, the majority of rib fractures in this country are managed this way. During the past decade, a number of surgical rib fixation systems have been developed. The question is, when do you really need to consider this more invasive and potentially costly intervention? A review article from this hospital published earlier this year digs into the subsets of patients for whom operative management.

The Eastern Association for the Surgery of Trauma recently surveyed their own members, members of the Orthopedic Trauma Association, and a number of thoracic surgeons on the topic of operative rib fracture management. About 75% believed that operative fixation was indicated in some patients, but only about 20% or trauma surgeons and orthopedic surgeons and about half of thoracic surgeons had actually performed it.

The proposed benefits of surgical fixation are faster return of pulmonary function, fewer complications due to shorter ventilator time, shorter ICU and hospital lengths of stay, and a faster return to work. This review article found that these benefits were real when the technique is applied to select patients.

The authors found that:

  • The best indication is flail chest and respiratory failure without pulmonary contusion
  • Non-intubated patients with flail chest and deteriorating pulmonary function are also candidates
  • Reduction of pain and disability from symptomatic malunion or nonunion is a weaker indication due to sparse literature support
  • Other factors such as acute pain, open fractures, fracture repair while performing a thoracotomy for other reasons and chest wall deformity are weakly supported by the literature at best
  • There is no clear winner in the battle of hardware fixation systems

Bottom line: Operative rib fixation is indicated in patients with flail chest and pulmonary problems without significant pulmonary contusion, and in those with symptomatic mal- and non-unions. Flail chest patients benefit from early fixation, while the mal/nonunion groups should have fixation later once this condition is identified. Consideration for other indications should carefully take into account the cost, risk, and benefit to the patient. The literature is very weak in this regard, and a great deal more work is necessary to ensure that these techniques are not overused. 

Reference: Operative treatment of chest wall injuries: indications, technique, and outcomes. JBJS 93:97-110, 2011. 

Rib Fracture Management

A reader sent a query yesterday regarding treatment of rib fractures, and specifically asking about epidural analgesia. Today, I’ll try to answer those questions.

Rib fractures, with or without other injuries, are a big killer in trauma patients. This is particularly true in the elderly. Overall mortality rates range from 3% to 13%, with the most import factor being pain. So what is the best way to manage patients with rib fractures to speed their safe recovery?

It’s best to attack this problem from three different directions simultaneously: pain control, respiratory hygiene (or pulmonary toilet if you’re a pessimist), and activity management.

There are many approaches to pain management, which include:

  • Oral or IV analgesics
  • Various types of blocks (intrapleural, intercostal, paravertebral, epidural)
  • Topical agents (xylocaine patch)
  • Stabilization (surgical only; belts and straps are bad for breathing)

Epidural analgesia is usually seen as the ultimate form of pain control, and is usually recommended for patients with multiple fractures or severe pain with inadequate response to medications and blocks. Much of the literature on its use is based on ICU patients who were not injured. A meta-analysis was conducted that specifically looked at epidural analgesia results in trauma patients, and found that it did improve pain management and some pulmonary function tests. However, there did not appear to be any change in mortality, ICU or hospital length of stay, or time on a ventilator.

Respiratory hygiene may involve simple measures such as coughing and deep breathing, incentive spirometry, and even mechanical ventilation in severe cases. Activity management consists of turning, sitting in a chair, walking, and forms of mechanical chest wall oscillation.

Bottom Line: The key to rib fracture management is a systematic approach that address all three dimensions of care based on objective patient measures. One size does not fit all, so more aggressive measures are warranted for more severe injury. I’ve attached an interesting patented scoring system and management algorithm, as well as two protocols from US trauma centers that range from simple (Vanderbilt) to more complex (West Virginia University).

Please feel free to comment, and I’d be happy to look at your protocol. Please email it to me!

Related post: History of epidural analgesia

Downloads

References

  • Effect of epidural analgesia in patients with traumatic rib fractures: a systematic review and meta-analysis of randomized controlled trials. Can J Anaesth 56(3):230-42, Epub 2009 Feb 11.
  • Rib Fracture Score and Protocol, US Patent #7,225,813 B2 – June 5, 2007

Trauma 20 Years Ago: Continuous Epidural Analgesia for Rib Fractures

Rib fractures are painful, and lots of rib fractures not only hurt, but can lead to complications or death. We take for granted all the modalities we now have for pain relief with rib fractures:

  • IV narcotics
  • epidural analgesia
  • rib blocks
  • intrapleural analgesia
  • lidocaine patches
  • fracture fixation techniques
  • and more!

In April 1991, we were still trying to figure out if epidural analgesia was any better than IV narcotics. A small prospective study of 32 patients who were awake and alert and had at least 3 rib fractures were given either IV or epidural fentanyl. The drug was administered as an initial bolus, followed by a continuous infusion. A visual analog pain scale was used for titration.

Vital capacity increased significantly in both groups. Epidural analgesia also led to an improvement in maximum inspiratory pressure (which we now know as NIF). IV analgesia led to somewhat troubling increases in pCO2 and decreases in pO2, whereas epidural administration did not. Pain relief was better with the epidural, while side effects were similar.

The authors concluded that epidural analgesia offers several advantages over IV, and stated that it should be the preferred method for patients at high risk for complications following multiple rib fractures. This paper started us on the path to using the epidural for pain management with significant rib fractures.

Reference: Prospective evaluation of epidural and intravenous administration of fentanyl for pain control and restoration of ventilatory function following multiple rib fractures. J Trauma 31(4):443-451, 1991.