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Chest injuries

5-minute read

If you have severe difficulty breathing, call triple zero (000) immediately and ask for an ambulance.

What are chest injuries?

Chest injuries are injuries to the chest wall (the bones, skin, fat and muscles protecting your lungs, including your ribs and sternum) or any of the organs inside the chest.

Chest injuries include:

  • bruising or abrasions (cuts and grazes) to the chest area
  • broken bones (for example, a rib fracture)
  • damage to the lungs or heart

Chest injuries can be minor, such as bruising, or serious problems that need urgent medical attention.

One of the most common chest injuries is fractured ribs. These are caused by a strong blunt force, such as a fall from a height or a motor vehicle crash. In older people who have osteoporosis, only a slight force, such as a minor fall, can fracture a rib.

A fractured rib is rarely serious. However, the force that caused the fracture can occasionally cause other problems, such as a bruised or collapsed lung, so it’s important to seek medical attention if you think you may have a fractured rib.

When should I call an ambulance?

Chest injuries that interfere with breathing or circulation can be serious or life threatening.

If the injury is severe, there may be internal bleeding. This might be obvious (e.g. coughing up blood), or not so obvious (e.g. pale and clammy skin, nausea, extreme thirst).

Go to an emergency department or call an ambulance on triple zero (000) if you:

What should I do while waiting for the ambulance?

First aid for a chest injury will depend on the type of injury:

  • if any part of your chest is bleeding, cover the area with a clean cloth or bandage, and apply consistent pressure to stop the bleeding
  • for a penetrating wound, if an object remains in the chest, it should not be removed
  • position the injured person with the injured side down
  • CPR may be necessary

What are the symptoms of chest injuries?

Signs of chest injury can vary, depending on the type of injury. The most common signs and symptoms are:

  • pain in the chest that gets worse when laughing, coughing or sneezing
  • tenderness
  • bruising
  • swelling

Symptoms of a fractured rib are:

  • extreme pain when breathing in
  • tenderness to the chest or back over the ribs
  • a ‘crunchy’ feeling under the skin
  • severe shortness of breath

CHECK YOUR SYMPTOMS — Use our chest injury Symptom Checker and find out if you need to seek medical help.

What causes chest injuries?

Chest injuries may be caused by:

  • a blunt injury, such as from sport, or from a punch or kick, or from a fall
  • a penetrating wound, such as from a gun or a knife
  • a crushing injury, such as from a road accident

How are chest injuries diagnosed?

A chest injury is diagnosed with a physical examination and sometimes investigations such as a chest x-ray. A blood test may also be done. A CT scan may also be needed to check for injury to the heart.

For a rib fracture, sometimes doctors can feel the broken ribs when they gently press the affected area. Sometimes rib fractures don’t show on a chest x-ray. If you appear well and the doctor doesn’t suspect complications, you may not need an x-ray. Your doctor may order a chest x-ray to look for any serious problems related to the fractured rib, such as a bruised or collapsed lung.

How are chest injuries treated?

Treatment of the chest injury will depend on the cause of the injury and how serious it is. The medical team will support breathing and circulation if necessary. You may be given oxygen and intravenous fluids or blood transfusions. If you have a severe chest injury, you will be admitted to the hospital.

A fractured rib will heal on its own, but it takes time. If you have a fractured rib, you may be asked to breathe deeply regularly to keep the air sacs in the lung open and prevent pneumonia, a type of chest infection.

If you are in pain, take pain killers. Pain relief is important so you will feel more comfortable to cough and take deep breaths.

If your injury is minor, try to keep moving around and doing what you normally do. But avoid lifting, bending and any strenuous exercise until your pain and other symptoms have gone.

What are the complications of chest injuries?

The main complication from rib fracture or chest injury is a chest infection.

Other less common complications of chest injuries include:

  • haemothorax: blood in the space surrounding the lung
  • pneumothorax: air in the space surrounding the lung
  • surgical emphysema: air trapped under the skin can cause a swollen area on the chest wall
  • abdominal injuries: liver or spleen damage can cause pain in your stomach or back

Call healthdirect on 1800 022 222 (known as NURSE-ON-CALL in Victoria) for advice if:

  • your symptoms get worse
  • you develop new symptoms
  • you become increasingly concerned

Learn more here about the development and quality assurance of healthdirect content.

Last reviewed: November 2019

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