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.