How to Identify Sternal Fractures

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Sternal fractures often result from a blow to the chest. Often times a blow to the chest comes in contact sports such as football. Another frequent cause is in an auto accident, when an airbag fails to deploy in a head-on collision or an unrestrained driver hits the steering wheel. Sometimes, the seatbelt itself can cause a sternal fracture from pulling the chest back as the body goes forward. Sternal fracture also may occur in physical assault on an individual. Rarely, sternal fracture results during resuscitation procedures in the hospital. If you've been injured by a blow to the chest, how do you know if you have a sternal fracture or if you just bruised the bone and/or muscles or strained something? This article will explore how to identify sternal fractures.

Things You'll Need

  • Ambulance ride to the hospital for xrays following accident (potentially)
  • Trip to doctor's office to get ordered for further testing
  • Cat scan
  • MRI
  • Doctor's examination
  • If you have been in a car accident or you were just injured playing sports, and you feel pain in your chest area from a blow to the chest, you will need to get to the hospital. For safety precautions and to prevent further injury, an ambulance should be called so you can be transported appropriately and safely.

  • Once you arrive at the hospital, the doctor will examine the chest area. The first step will be to get a regular xray, or a radiograph.

  • The doctor will start with an xray of the chest. If this does not reveal a fracture or bone break, sternal views will be taken to see the sternum better in the xray.

  • A fracture may not always show up on an xray. Fractures are not as clear cut as a break of the bone. If the results of the xrays show no broken or fractured bones, the hospital physician will send you home, with instructions to follow up with your doctor in a few days.

  • If you continue to have persistent pain, other tests can be done to identify a sternal fracture. When you return to the doctor for follow up care, the doctor will then order these tests. One such test is a CT scan, or computed tomography. During this procedure, scans are taken of the chest area. The downside to this test for identifying a sternal fracture is that the fracture itself may be between cuts or scans and not show up.

  • If the CT scan also shows no sternal fracture, the doctor might order an MRI, magnetic resonance imaging. This shows detailed images of the body in any plane, thus sometimes allowing a better picture of the sternum than with xray or CT scan alone.

  • Because of the difficulty to sometimes see fractures of bones with any type of body imaging, the doctor may have to rely on symptoms alone. If you experience pain in the chest that becomes worse with movement, you could have a sternal fracture. Visual bruising over the sternum gives a good indication. If one area over the sternum is extremely sensitive, there could be a sternal fracture.

  • You may never know for sure if you have a sternal fracture. The problem with chest injuries and with fractures in general is that it is often hard to see exactly what has happened. If no tests reveal a fracture but you still have pain, you should just treat yourself as if there is a fracture and take measures to be careful so you can heal accordingly.

Tips & Warnings

  • Often, sternal fractures are accompanied by other injuries as well. Commonly you will also have soft tissue injuries of the surrounding cartilage and muscle of the sternum. Sometimes, the muscles around the heart may be injured as well and require special care.
  • If you get an xray and it does not reveal a sternal fracture but you have immense pain, insist on other tests to try and discover the fracture.
  • If you are injured, don't take chances not getting treatment. It's always better to be safe and get checked out for broken or fractured bones.
  • Sternal fractures generally take weeks to heal. In some cases, however, especially when there are also broken ribs and injury to the muscles, the healing period can last much, much longer.
  • You may continue to experience pain in the chest long after the sternal fracture itself is considered healed. This is because of the issue to soft tissues and potential continued bruising of the bone that did not actually lead to a break. Don't be surprised if you are in pain for a year or more following chest injuries.

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