Chest Trauma Overview and Practice Questions Vector

Chest Trauma: Overview and Practice Questions (2024)

by | Updated: Apr 28, 2024

Chest trauma, a critical medical emergency, stands as a leading cause of morbidity and mortality worldwide.

It encompasses a range of injuries from blunt or penetrating trauma, impacting the thoracic cavity’s vital components, including the heart, lungs, ribs, and major blood vessels.

This article explains the types, mechanisms, clinical presentations, and management strategies, emphasizing the urgency and complexity of treating this condition.

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What is Chest Trauma?

Chest trauma involves injury to the thoracic cavity, affecting structures like the lungs, heart, ribs, and major blood vessels. It can result from blunt or penetrating mechanisms, such as car accidents or stabbings. Prompt medical attention is crucial due to potentially life-threatening complications like pneumothorax or cardiac tamponade.

Chest trauma vector illustration

Types of Chest Trauma

Chest trauma, a significant cause of injury and death in trauma cases, can be broadly classified into two types: blunt and penetrating.

Each type affects the thoracic cavity’s structures differently and requires distinct approaches for management:

Blunt Chest Trauma

Blunt chest trauma is the most common type, often resulting from car accidents, falls, or sports injuries. It doesn’t involve an object breaking the skin but can cause severe internal injuries. Key injuries include:

  • Rib fractures: The most common injury in blunt chest trauma, potentially leading to punctured lungs or damaged blood vessels.
  • Pneumothorax and Hemothorax: Air or blood entering the pleural space, respectively, often due to lung injury.
  • Pulmonary Contusion: Bruising or bleeding in the lung tissue, impacting oxygenation.
  • Cardiac Injuries: Such as cardiac contusion or traumatic cardiac arrest.
  • Aortic Disruption: Though rare, can be fatal and typically occurs in high-impact injuries.

Penetrating Chest Trauma

Penetrating chest trauma is caused by an object piercing the skin and entering the chest cavity, such as bullets or knives.

These injuries are generally more localized but can be extremely severe. Common issues include:

  • Pneumothorax/Hemothorax: Similar to blunt trauma but often due to direct lung or blood vessel injury.
  • Cardiac Tamponade: Blood accumulation in the pericardium, compressing the heart.
  • Traumatic Diaphragmatic Tear: An opening in the diaphragm, which can lead to abdominal organs moving into the chest cavity.
  • Tracheobronchial Injuries: Injury to the airways, though rare, can be life-threatening.

Note: Both types of chest trauma can lead to significant respiratory compromise and circulatory shock, requiring immediate medical assessment and intervention. The specific nature and extent of the injuries often dictate the treatment strategy, ranging from supportive care for minor injuries to surgical intervention for more severe cases.

Sign and Symptoms

The signs and symptoms of chest trauma can vary widely depending on the type and severity of the injury.

Common clinical features include:

  • Pain: Often the most immediate and noticeable symptom, especially severe with rib fractures or when the pleura (lung lining) is involved.
  • Difficulty Breathing: Due to pain, lung injury, pneumothorax, or hemothorax, patients may experience shortness of breath or rapid, shallow breathing.
  • Hemoptysis: This may occur with lung contusions, tracheobronchial injuries, or pulmonary lacerations.
  • Bruising, Swelling, or Deformity of the Chest Wall: Indicates possible rib fractures, sternum fractures, or soft tissue injuries.
  • Abnormal Chest Movement: Paradoxical movement of a chest segment, known as flail chest, is seen with multiple adjacent rib fractures.
  • Cyanosis or Pale Skin: Suggests inadequate oxygenation or significant blood loss.
  • Tachycardia and Hypotension: Common in shock, whether from blood loss, cardiac injury, or tension pneumothorax.
  • Distended Neck Veins: Can indicate tension pneumothorax, cardiac tamponade, or major vascular injury.
  • Subcutaneous Emphysema: Air leaking into the subcutaneous tissue, felt as a crackling sensation upon palpation of the skin, typically around the chest and neck.
  • Altered Mental Status: May result from shock, hypoxia, or other systemic injuries.

Recognizing these signs and symptoms promptly is crucial for effective management.

Some conditions like tension pneumothorax or cardiac tamponade are medical emergencies requiring immediate intervention to prevent rapid deterioration and death.

Therefore, any patient with significant chest trauma should be evaluated by healthcare professionals as soon as possible.


Treatment for chest trauma varies with the injury’s type and severity, and often involves a multi-disciplinary approach.

Key treatment elements include:

  • Airway Management: Clearing and securing the airway; mechanical ventilation if needed.
  • Breathing and Ventilation: Providing oxygen therapy; treating conditions like pneumothorax with chest tube insertion, or flail chest with pain control and ventilation.
  • Circulation: Controlling external bleeding; using intravenous fluids or blood transfusions for shock; emergency thoracotomy for catastrophic hemorrhage or cardiac tamponade.
  • Pain Management: Administering analgesics, nerve blocks, or epidural analgesia for effective pain relief.
  • Surgical Intervention: For penetrating trauma, heart or large vessel injuries, and severe lung injuries, using thoracotomy or minimally invasive techniques like VATS.
  • Monitoring and Supportive Care: Continuous vital signs, oxygen saturation, and cardiac monitoring; managing other injuries and preventing complications.
  • Rehabilitation: Physical therapy for full lung function and strength recovery, especially following rib fractures or prolonged hospitalization.

Note: Immediate, precise assessment and rapid treatment initiation are crucial for better outcomes in chest trauma patients. Treatment often involves trauma surgery, thoracic surgery, pulmonology, and respiratory care specialists tailored to each case.

What is a Flail Chest?

A flail chest is a serious condition that occurs when a segment of the rib cage becomes detached from the rest of the chest wall.

This typically results from multiple adjacent ribs (usually three or more) being fractured in two or more places following blunt chest trauma, such as from a motor vehicle accident or a fall.

Key features and impact of flail chest include:

  • Paradoxical Movement: The detached segment of the rib cage moves in the opposite direction to the rest of the chest wall during respiration. While the intact part of the chest expands during inhalation, the flail segment moves inward, and vice versa during exhalation. This abnormal movement impairs the efficiency of breathing.
  • Respiratory Compromise: Flail chest can lead to significant respiratory distress due to the paradoxical movement of the flail segment, underlying lung contusion, and pain that inhibits deep breathing and effective coughing. This can result in hypoventilation (reduced breathing depth and rate), leading to hypoxemia (low blood oxygen) and hypercapnia (high blood carbon dioxide levels).
  • Associated Injuries: Often, flail chest is accompanied by other injuries like lung contusions, hemothorax (blood in the pleural space), or pneumothorax (air in the pleural space), which exacerbate respiratory problems.

Treatment focuses on ensuring adequate ventilation and oxygenation, pain management, and stabilization of the chest wall.

This might involve supplemental oxygen, mechanical ventilation in severe cases, and analgesia to enable effective breathing and coughing.

Surgical fixation of the ribs may be considered in certain cases.

Recovery and outcomes depend on the extent of the injury and the presence of associated injuries. Early and effective treatment is vital to reduce the risk of complications like pneumonia and respiratory failure.

Chest Trauma Practice Questions

1. What is chest trauma characterized by?
Chest trauma is characterized by injury to the structures within the thoracic cavity, including the lungs, heart, ribs, and major blood vessels. It can result from blunt or penetrating mechanisms, leading to conditions like rib fractures, pneumothorax, hemothorax, cardiac tamponade, and lung contusions. These injuries can cause pain, difficulty breathing, and other life-threatening complications, necessitating prompt medical attention.

2. What are the two types of chest trauma?
Blunt and penetrating

3. Blunt trauma can be caused by which mechanisms?
Deceleration, shearing, and compression

4. Penetrating trauma can be caused by which mechanisms?
Gunshot and stabbing wounds

5. What tests are ordered initially for patients with chest trauma?
Chest x-ray and CT scan of the chest/abdomen, CBC, type and cross-match, electrolytes, O2 saturation, ABG, and EKG.

6. Where is a chest tube inserted?
Right or left pleural spaces or mediastinum.

7. Why is a chest tube inserted?
To restore negative pressure and help the lungs re-expand.

8. What are the two types of chest tubes?
Small bore and large bore

9. What are the types of chest drainage systems?
Wet (water seal) and dry suction.

10. What will the wet drainage system look like when the chest tube is placed in the mediastinum?
It may pulsate with the patient’s heartbeat.

11. What can be done to prevent excessive negative pressure in a chest tube drainage system?
Having the water level at the 2 cm mark.

12. What are the benefits of a dry suction chamber?
Can be set up quickly in emergency situations, still works even if it is knocked over, and is useful for patients being transported.

13. What are the consequences of a dry suction chamber?
There’s no way to tell if the pressure in the chest has changed.

14. What happens if a chest tube stays clamped?
It can cause a tension pneumothorax and mediastinal shift.

15. What should be done if the patient has a chest tube and needs to be transported to another area of the hospital?
Place the drainage system below chest level while transporting.

16. What should be done if, while transporting a patient with a chest tube, the tubing disconnects?
Cut off contaminated tips, insert the sterile connector into the cut ends, and reattach to the draining system.

17. Is bubbling in the water seal chamber of a chest tube drainage system normal?
Intermittent bubbling is normal, not continuous bubbling.

18. When is the only acceptable time to clamp a chest tube?
Right before removal.

19. What are the priorities when removing a patient’s chest tube?
Preventing air from entering the pleural cavity and preventing infection; therefore, the tube is removed quickly after being clamped.

20. What dressing is used on the chest tube site after removal?
Petroleum gauze is applied, followed by 4×4 gauze, and thoroughly covered and sealed with tape.

21. What treatment should be done on sternal/rib fractures?
Pain management, as patients need to be able to breathe adequately, avoid excessive activity, apply ice over the fracture site, and use a chest binder.

22. What is the definition of a flail chest?
Flail chest is a condition where several ribs are fractured in different sites, which results in free-floating rib segments.

23. What can be observed on the ABG in patients with a flail chest?
Respiratory acidosis

24. What treatment is done in patients with a flail chest?
Ventilatory support (IS, deep breathing, bronchodilators, intubation), airway management, clearing lung secretions, controlling pain, and surgery if the injury is severe. Stabilize the area, intubate, and initiate positive pressure ventilation to treat or prevent ventilatory failure.

25. What should be monitored in patients with a flail chest?
Chest x-ray, ABG, pulse oximetry, and bedside pull functioning.

26. What is a pulmonary contusion?
A pulmonary contusion is a bruise of the lung tissue resulting from traumatic injury, typically due to blunt chest trauma like a car accident or a fall.

27. What is cardiac tamponade?
Cardiac tamponade is a life-threatening medical condition where fluid accumulates in the pericardium (the sac surrounding the heart), leading to reduced ventricular filling and compromised cardiac output.

28. What is a pneumothorax?
Pneumothorax is a collection of air in the pleural space that causes part or all of the lungs to collapse due to the loss of negative pressure in the chest cavity.

29. What are the three types of pneumothorax?
Simple or spontaneous, traumatic, and tension.

30. What are the clinical manifestations of a pneumothorax?
Pleuritic pain, tachypnea, anxiety, dyspnea with air hunger, use of accessory muscles, decreased or absent breath sounds, decreased movement on the affected side, and subcutaneous emphysema.

31. What is the progression of a tension pneumothorax?
Air enters a wound in the chest wall and becomes trapped; ith each breath, tension increases in the pleural space; the lung collapses, and mediastinal structures shift to the opposite side.

32. What are the classic signs of a tension pneumothorax?
Deviation of the trachea away from the side with the tension, hyper-expanded chest that moves little with respiration, an increased percussion note, and central venous pressure is usually raised but will be normal or low if the patient is hypovolemic.

33. What is hemothorax?
An accumulation of blood in the pleural cavity.

34. What is the difference between the treatment for hemothorax and pneumothorax?
Chest tubes for pneumothorax are high in the chest wall. However, blood is heavy and will pool lower in the thoracic cavity closer to the diaphragm. So, for a hemothorax, the chest tube is placed lower in the chest wall.

35. What position is best for patients with a pneumothorax?
High Fowler’s position

36. How does a chest tube treat a hemothorax or pneumothorax?
It is inserted by a physician into pleural space, drains blood, fluid, air, or pus, and re-establishes negative pressure in the thoracic cavity, facilitating lung expansion.

37. What is an air leak, and what should be done to treat it?
An air leak is noted when continuous rapid bubbling is found in the water seal chamber. When this happens, start at the insertion site and assess the tubing to locate the leak.

38. What is subcutaneous emphysema?
Subcutaneous emphysema is a medical condition where gas or air is trapped beneath the skin’s surface, typically resulting from an injury or rupture in the nearby respiratory system or infection with gas-producing bacteria.

39. What does subcutaneous emphysema feel like?
It feels like rice krispies crackling in the neck, face, and chest.

40. How can a tension pneumothorax be fatal?
It can be fatal as accumulating pressure compresses blood vessels, decreasing venous return and cardiac output.

41. What is an open pneumothorax?
A sucking chest wound and opening that allows air into the pleural space.

42. What are the most common injuries from chest trauma?
Fractures of the ribs and sternum.

43. What are the signs and symptoms of ribs or sternum fractures?
Pain and tenderness, crepitus, bones grating together, shallow respirations, and respiratory acidosis.

44. What complications should you look for with rib or sternum fractures?
Pneumothorax, hemothorax, and flail chest.

45. When does flail chest occur?
It occurs when a patient has multiple rib fractures.

46. What are the signs and symptoms of flail chest?
Pain, paradoxical chest wall movement, dyspnea, cyanosis, increased pulse, moves in with inspiration/out with expiration, increased work of breathing, hypoxemia, and tachycardia.

47. What is paradoxical chest wall movement?
A see-saw chest where the chest sucks inwardly on inspiration and puffs out on expiration. To assess chest symmetry, always stand at the foot of the bed to observe how the chest is rising and falling.

48. What does a blunt chest wall injury do?
It damages structures in the chest cavity without disrupting chest wall integrity.

49. What is the leading cause of blunt chest injuries?
Motor vehicle accidents (MVA)

50. What is the medical treatment for cardiac tamponade?

51. What are the symptoms of a rib fracture?
Pain at the site of injury, localized tenderness, crepitus, splinting of the chest, and shallow breathing.

52. Why can rib fractures cause atelectasis?
Rib fractures are painful, and this makes the patient not want to take deep breaths.

53. What is used to diagnose rib fractures?
Chest x-ray

54. What is the primary goal of treating rib fractures?
Pain management

55. Why are opioids used cautiously to treat rib fractures?
They can suppress respiration.

56. How is a flail chest diagnosed?
Chest x-ray and visual inspection.

57. What is the best way to diagnose a flail chest?
Visual inspection

58. What is a closed pneumothorax?
There is no external wound.

59. How much water is needed in the water seal chamber of a pleural drainage system?
2 cm

60. What should be assessed in the water-seal chamber?

61. What does excessive bubbling mean?
That there’s a leak

62. What does no bubbling mean?
The lung is expanded, or there is a kink.

63. What do we do if the drainage system breaks?
Place the end of the chest tube in 2 cm of sterile water.

64. What type of chest trauma is more commonly harder to determine the extent of damage?
Blunt trauma

65. What are the types of blunt trauma?
Fractured sternum or ribs, flail chest, and pulmonary contusion.

66. What is penetrating chest trauma?
It occurs when a foreign object enters the chest wall (e.g., gunshot wound or stabbing).

67. What is the most common type of chest trauma?
Rib fracture

68. What is the prognosis of sternal and rib fractures?
Most are benign but can be life-threatening.

69. What conservative treatment is available for sternal and rib fractures?
Pain control, avoiding excessive activity, deep breathing exercises, rib belts, and surgical intervention in severe cases.

70. What should be noted in patients with penetrating trauma compared to patients with a blunt injury?
Patients with penetrating trauma may deteriorate rapidly and recover much faster than patients with blunt injuries.

71. What is the medical management of patients with chest trauma?
Establish and secure the airway (i.e., intubation and mechanical ventilation; Re-establish chest wall integrity (i.e., occluding open chest wounds, correct fluid volume, or drain intrapleural fluid); and control bleeding.

72. What is paradoxical movement?
The flail area moves in the opposite direction of the intact portion of the chest wall. During inspiration, the affected portion is sucked in with a mediastinal shift to the uninjured side or unaffected side. On expiration, the flail section bulges outward with a mediastinal shift to the injured side. This results in hypoxemia, respiratory acidosis, and hypotension.

73. What are the treatment goals for a patient with a flail chest?
Depends on the degree of respiratory dysfunction and will include controlling pain, clearing secretions, and ventilatory support.

74. What interventions are used to clear the airway of patients with a flail chest?
A cough and deep breath, positioning, and suctioning of secretions.

75. What are the causes of a simple or spontaneous pneumothorax?
Rupture of a bleb, rupture of a bronchopleural fistula, or rupture of an air-filled blister in a healthy person.

76. What are the causes of traumatic pneumothorax?
Causes include blunt trauma, penetrating chest trauma, abdominal trauma, and invasive thoracic procedures.

77. Why are chest tubes inserted?
To drain the pleural space and reestablish negative pressure, allowing for proper lung expansion.

78. What are the different types of chest tubes?
Large chest tubes to drain blood, medium chest tubes to drain fluid, and small chest tubes to drain air.

79. What does an anterior chest tube remove?

80. What does a posterior chest tube remove?

Final Thoughts

Chest trauma demands prompt and efficient medical intervention due to its potentially life-threatening implications.

Understanding the varied manifestations and immediate treatment protocols is crucial for healthcare professionals.

This knowledge, coupled with advances in emergency medicine and trauma care, plays a pivotal role in improving survival rates and outcomes for patients suffering from these serious injuries.

The continuous evolution of diagnostic techniques and treatment strategies remains essential in the field of respiratory care.

John Landry, BS, RRT

Written by:

John Landry, BS, RRT

John Landry is a registered respiratory therapist from Memphis, TN, and has a bachelor's degree in kinesiology. He enjoys using evidence-based research to help others breathe easier and live a healthier life.


  • Rrt, Des Terry Jardins MEd, and Burton George Md Facp Fccp Faarc. Clinical Manifestations and Assessment of Respiratory Disease. 8th ed., Mosby, 2019.
  • Jain A, Waseem M. Chest Trauma. [Updated 2023 Feb 20]. In: StatPearls [Internet]. Treasure Island (FL): StatPearls Publishing; 2023.
  • Perera TB, King KC. Flail Chest. [Updated 2023 Jul 17]. In: StatPearls [Internet]. Treasure Island (FL): StatPearls Publishing; 2023.

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