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What is the Breast Bone?

By Meshell Powell
Updated Mar 03, 2024
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The breast bone, also known as the sternum, is a long, flat bone located in the middle of the chest region of the human body. The bone is connected to the ribs by a flexible type of connective tissue called cartilage. The primary role of this bone is to protect the heart and lungs from any type of physical trauma. While a fracture of the sternum is not a common injury, it does sometimes happen. When this occurs, prompt medical attention is necessary to gauge the extent of the damage and begin appropriate treatment.

During certain types of thoracic surgery, or surgery relating to the organs found in the chest area of the body, it may be necessary for the surgeon to cut open the breast bone in order to reach the organs. This type of surgery is called cardiothoracic surgery, with the actual process of cutting open the sternum referred to as a median sternotomy.

When a traumatic injury such as a car accident or sports injury results in a direct blow to the chest, it is possible for this bone to be fractured. If this type of injury is suspected, an immediate trip to the hospital is in order. Typically, x-rays will be ordered right away to verify the presence of a fracture. Since the sternum works to protect the vital organs found in the chest, tests will often be ordered to make sure there is no damage to the heart or lungs.

Once a fracture has been confirmed and it has been determined the bone did its job by protecting the organs of the chest, a treatment plan can be devised. Pain medications such as ibuprofen are often prescribed in order to help reduce the amount of swelling and inflammation as well as provide some level of pain relief. Doctors once bandaged the fractured sternum tightly in order to reduce movement while healing. However, this is no longer common practice, as it is believed the bone heals more quickly and completely if left unhindered, allowing more room for efficient breathing.

The patient should rest as much as possible during the first two weeks following a breast bone injury. Afterward, activity may be slowly increased as long as the patient does not experience excruciating pain. It typically takes the body several weeks to heal completely from this type of injury, so it is important to not try to resume normal activity levels before the body is ready.

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Discussion Comments
By irontoenail — On Jun 24, 2013

@clinflint - Honestly, I don't think you'll have to worry about it all that much. With the advances they've made in keyhole surgery and surgery with robots, I think they'll mostly be able to go through the spaces between the ribs in the future, no matter what's wrong with a person.

And that would be much better for everyone, because causing that kind of trauma doesn't really help with the healing process.

By clintflint — On Jun 24, 2013

@Fa5t3r - It's occurred to me, if only because I watch a lot of medical shows and something they have to do every now and then is crack the sternum in order to get to the heart and/or lungs and do some kind of surgery.

It always makes me wince whenever they do it, not because I'm thinking of pain in the breast bone (of course the patient is unconscious when they do this) although I guess it must hurt a lot when they wake up, but because it seems like such a drastic thing to do. Actually breaking a bone in surgery, for a surgery that isn't actually on the bone, just seems wrong.

I mean, I get it, I know why they have to do it and I wouldn't object if I was in the position where they'd have to do a surgery like that on me, but it still makes me shudder.

By Fa5t3r — On Jun 23, 2013

It's never actually occurred to me that the breast bone could be broken, although of course it could be. I guess because of the way it's set up, basically a flat surface, it would rarely be subjected to enough force to be injured. And it's supposed to be strong enough to protect the organs.

It must really hurt if you manage to break it though, I'd be surprised if the only painkiller they gave for it was ibuprofen. Pain in the breast bone would probably be really irritating as well, because now that I think about it, it's connected to everything, so any time you moved your upper body at all you'd be feeling it.

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