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A sternal fracture is a break in the breastbone that is usually caused by a sudden, forceful impact. It is typically a very painful injury that can be accompanied by swelling, bruising, and breathing difficulties. Major life-threatening complications such as internal bleeding, lung collapse, and heart muscle rupture can occur as well. Recovery from a sternal fracture can take several weeks or months, depending on the extent of the injury. By taking medications, limiting activity levels, and following other instructions provided by their doctors, most people are eventually able to make full recoveries.
High-impact automobile accidents are the leading cause of sternal fractures. When a car's momentum suddenly stops, the chest may be crushed into the steering wheel or dashboard with extreme force. A person may also suffer a sternal fracture if he or she falls directly on the breastbone from height or gets hit in the chest with a fast-moving projectile, such as a baseball. In most cases, breakage occurs along the bottom of the sternum because it is considerably more fragile and less protected than the thicker upper portion.
A sternal fracture is usually noticeable right away. A person experiences intense, throbbing pain in the center of the chest and trouble taking normal breaths. In the case of a major fracture, a crackling sensation in the chest may be felt and even audible when trying to move about. The area is usually bruised, very tender to the touch, and swollen. Other symptoms may be present if internal injuries have occurred, such as rapid breathing and heartbeat, dizziness, mental confusion, and fainting.
It is important to seek emergency medical care whenever a sternal fracture is suspected. A health-care team can stabilize the patient with oxygen therapy and intravenous medications if necessary. X-rays and computerized tomography scans are taken from multiple angles to gauge the extent of the bone fracture and to look for internal complications.
In the case of a relatively minor sternal fracture, a patient may not need surgery or an extensive hospital stay. He or she might simply be advised to avoid physical activity for several weeks, ice the bone regularly, and take anti-inflammatory medications to reduce pain and swelling. The doctor can also explain deep breathing techniques and light physical exercises the patient can do as the injury heals to speed up recovery time. A more serious injury may require surgery to realign bones, aspirate blood from the chest cavity, or mend a damaged lung.