The sternum, also known as the breast bone, is located in the middle of the chest and together with the ribs forms the rib cage, which helps to protect the heart and lungs from external damage. A broken or fractured sternum, also known as a sternal fracture, is almost always caused by blunt-force trauma and occurs most often in motor vehicle accidents when a driver’s chest forcefully strikes the steering wheel. Motor vehicle accidents account for 60 to 90 percent of all sternal fractures, according to eMedicine.com.
Symptoms Can Be Confusing
A fractured sternum can cause a number of symptoms, some of which can be mistaken for other conditions. The most noticeable symptom, according to FreeMD.com, is chest pain. Other symptoms may include bruising of the chest, a noticeable deformity of the chest, tenderness or swelling in the center of the chest, or difficulty breathing.
The chest pain characteristic of a broken sternum radiates from the center of the chest. Movement may aggravate this pain, which also can be exacerbated by deep breathing. Get professional medical help as soon as possible if you suspect you’ve suffered a sternal fracture. Although in most cases, the damage is limited to the sternum itself, damage to the heart, coronary arteries or lungs is also possible in cases of extreme trauma.
Bruising and Inflammation
Bruising and/or inflammation of the chest in the area of the sternum almost certainly will follow any blunt force trauma to the chest. It is not necessarily indicative of a sternal fracture but is certainly a sign that you need to be examined by a medical professional so that a definitive diagnosis can be made.
Deformity or Crepitation
Less ambiguous is the appearance of a deformity of the chest after an auto accident or another similar injury to the chest. Such a symptom is a clear indication that serious damage was done to the sternum or related musculoskeletal structures. In some cases of sternal fracture, you may be able to hear the broken edges of the sternum rubbing against one another (crepitation), even if no external evidence of sternal deformity is present, according to eMedicine.com.
Difficult or painful breathing—particularly when taking a deep breath—is another sign of a possible sternal fracture. It is hardly conclusive, however, which again makes it important to get professional counsel after a chest injury that is followed by any of the symptoms enumerated here.