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The sternum is a flat, downward-pointing bone that joins the ribs at the center of the chest, forming part of the bony enclosure known as the ribcage that protects the lungs and heart. A fractured sternum typically results from a solid blow to the chest, often one which has occurred during a car accident. While it can be difficult to treat a fractured sternum, usually the injury will gradually heal without medical intervention. As a fractured sternum can leave the heart and lungs vulnerable to injury, however, physicians will often perform tests on those who have broken this bone to ensure that the organs within the ribcage have not been damaged.
Any firm blow to the chest area can potentially cause a fractured sternum. The injury may occur during a collision while playing a contact sport, for instance. It could also occur if the chest strikes an object or the ground during a fall.
Perhaps the most common cause of sternum fracture, however, is car accident. A car’s driver may suffer a broken sternum if his chest strikes the steering wheel during an accident. Drivers who do not wear a seat belt face an especially high risk of being thrust into the steering wheel in an accident. Somewhat paradoxically, the force of a seat belt against the chest during a collision can also cause a fractured sternum in both drivers and passengers. It should be noted, however, that the benefits of seat belt usage are generally thought to outweigh such potential consequences.
Due to its internal location, the sternum is difficult to immobilize, making it challenging to treat a fracture of this bone. Mild to moderate sternum fractures will usually mend themselves over time, however. During the healing period, over-the-counter or prescription-strength painkillers may be used to manage discomfort in the affected area. Sternums which have been very severely broken or shattered may require surgical correction to prevent injury to nearby organs.
A fractured sternum presents a double threat to the lungs and the heart, which are contained within the ribcage. First of all, these organs can become bruised, scraped, or punctured during the breakage itself. Secondly, a sternum which has been broken may not be able to provide adequate protection to the lungs and heart. Therefore, physicians who suspect a sternum fracture may order imaging tests such as x-rays to ensure that the injured individual’s lungs or heart have not been damaged.