Dealing with a Broken Sternum

A broken sternum can be a difficult injury to identify without being inspected by a doctor. Although the source behind the injury may be obvious—such as a fall or an accident—the injury itself can often be mistaken for simple bruising and tenderness rather than the fracture that it is. There are several symptoms that can help you determine whether you may be suffering from a sternum fracture, most of which we will discuss in this article.

The sternum is a flat, long, T-shaped bone that sits in the center of the chest between the rib cages and clavicles (collar bones). The sternum is also called the breastbone. Its main purpose is to provide a protective shield for the heart and lungs, as well as important blood vessels that reside in the area.

When the sternum has become cracked or gets broken altogether, the most common and noticeable symptom is pain in the chest. Some people mistake the pain of a broken sternum with that of a heart attack; however the additional symptoms can help to rule out the likelihood of a heart attack. The strength and number of symptoms felt really depends on the type of fracture that has occurred. With a minor fracture, one could expect to feel pain in the chest as well as swelling in the area of the sternum. The skin and breastbone are likely to be tender to the touch and discolored due to bruising.

A serious fracture would result in quite debilitating pain that makes breathing and overall movement difficult. One may actually be able to see a disturbance in the smoothness of the chest’s skin caused by the actual bone fragments no longer lying in place. This is a sign that the bone has been thoroughly broken rather than cracked. In this same type of fracture, one might even hear the pieces of bone grinding against each other. It’s a very off-putting thought, but one that bears recollection should an injury to the chest occur.

As you can probably imagine, the causes behind a broken sternum are numerous! One of the top causes behind a fractured sternum is a car accident. A serious accident could cause the driver’s chest to forcefully collide with the steering wheel, causing damage to this centrally located bone. Another possible cause is fighting. Whether it’s martial arts, boxing, football, or rugby, the sternum can only take so much repetitive contact, and athletes whose sport of choice involves a lot of forceful bodily contact are more likely to weaken the breastbone over time. Eventually, the sternum will reach its breaking point and a fracture will occur. Bone weakness due to medical conditions or age are also likely causes behind a fractured sternum because the bone itself is simply not as strong as it should be.

When a patient is suspected of having a broken sternum, the doctor will take an x-ray of the front of the body, and sometimes the side as well, to confirm the condition of the bone as well as the severity. If the fracture is considered to be a minor one, the patient will have the bones set into their proper position so that they may heal properly. At this point, there isn’t much that can be done except to take measures to control the pain that will naturally accompany the healing process. In cases where the patient is suffering a great deal of pain or if the bone is broken so badly that it cannot be repositioned using external tactics, surgery may be necessary to properly set the bones. If the doctor suspects that the heart’s functioning could be suffering at all, the patient will have their heart monitored with an electrocardiogram.

If ever a sternal fracture is suspected, a doctor should be contacted immediately to confirm the situation.