What’s the connection between traumatic rib fractures and pulmonary embolism?

Pulmonary embolism (PE) may be a complication of traumatic rib fractures but not necessarily associated with the number of ribs involved.1,2 PE or venous thromboembolism (VTE) is likely related at least in part to the hypercoagulable state that often follows traumatic injury.3

Diagnosis of PE may be challenging because chest pain and shortness of breath attributed to rib fractures can also be a manifestation of PE. Nevertheless, we should consider PE in any patient with chest pain following rib fracture who has hypoxemia or has other risk factors for this complication (eg, obesity, hospitalization, malignancy, history of prior VTE, postoperative state, estrogen use, heart failure, COPD).4 In a retrospective study of 548 patients with traumatic rib fracture, 1.1% were diagnosed with PE.1 The true incidence of PE in patients with rib fracture is unclear, however.

Hypercoagulability following rib fracture likely contributes to the risk of PE. A prospective cohort study of patients admitted to ICU following trauma (97% blunt), found a high prevalence of hypercoagulability (62% on day 1 and 26% on day 4) based on thrombelastography analysis. Women were more hypercoagulable than men early after injury.  Among those classified as hypercoagulable, 10% developed VTE.3

Bonus Pearl: Did you know that in patients with blunt chest trauma, age >65 y and 3 or more rib fractures are associated with increased risk of mortality?

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  1. Sirmali M, Turut H, Topcu S, et al. A comprehensive analysis of traumatic rib fractures: morbidity, mortality and management. Eur J Cardio-Thoracic Surg 2003;24:133-138.
  2. Flagel BT, Luchette FA, Reed R, et al. Half-a-dozen ribs: The breakpoint for mortality. Surgery 2005;138:717-25.
  3. Schreiber MA, Differding J, Thorborg P, et al. Hypercoagulability is most prevalent early after injury and in female patients. J Trauma 2005;58:475-81.
  4. Belohlavek J, Vytrych V, Linhart A. Pulmonary embolism, part I: Epidemiology, risk factors and risk stratification, pathophysiology, clinical presentation, diagnosis and nonthrombotic pulmonary embolism. Exp Clin Cardiol 2013;18:129-138.
  5. Battle CE, Hutchings H, Evans PA. Risk factors that predict mortality in patients with blunt chest wall trauma: A systematic review and meta-analysis. Injury 2012;43:8-17. 

Disclosures: The listed questions and answers are solely the responsibility of the author and do not necessarily represent the official views of Mercy Hospital-St. Louis, Massachusetts General Hospital, Harvard Catalyst, Harvard University, their affiliate academic healthcare centers, or its contributors. Although every effort has been made to provide accurate information, the author is far from being perfect. The reader is urged to verify the content of the material with other sources as deemed appropriate and exercise clinical judgment in the interpretation and application of the information provided herein. No responsibility for an adverse outcome or guarantees for a favorable clinical result is assumed by the author. Thank you!

What’s the connection between traumatic rib fractures and pulmonary embolism?

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