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Chest Trauma

Tips for Recognizing and Treating Common Chest Injuries

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Updated January 24, 2014

Chest trauma can be penetrating or blunt. If the injury pokes through the skin (stabbing, gunshot wound, arrow through the heart, etc) we call it penetrating chest trauma. If a sharp object tearing deep into skin and muscle isn't the main cause of tissue damage, consider it blunt chest trauma. Some blunt forces can still break the skin -- getting kicked by a horse comes to mind -- but tearing the skin is not considered penetrating trauma.

Car accidents and falls cause the most blunt chest trauma. Gunshot wounds cause the most penetrating trauma.

Broken Ribs

Few things in this world hurt as much as broken ribs. Unfortunately, there's not a lot you can do for simple broken ribs. Here are a few tips to try.

Flail Chest

A flail chest is broken ribs with an attitude. When something hits you hard enough to break off a section of ribs and leave them dangling only by the surrounding meat, you've got a section of spareribs flailing back and forth opposite of the rest of the ribcage. It hurts as bad as it sounds, as well as being potentially deadly.

Collapsed Lung

I'm not really a fan of the term collapsed lung. It's not as if you can poke a hole in a lung and let all the air out like a balloon. Instead, air trapped in the chest pushes the lung flat. Enough air will not only push the lung flat, but it will push it over, against the heart and the other lung. This video explains it.

Sucking Chest Wound

Most people agree, having a hole in your chest sucks. No really, it sucks air in the wrong way. A sucking chest wound can lead to a collapsed lung (see above). It also makes creepy little bubbles in the hole.

Gunshot Wound

Drop a rock in a pond and it makes a splash. Shoot a bullet into the body and it makes a splash, too. The difference is that after a few minutes, the pond will look the same, but the body stays messed up. Some of this is covered in How to Treat a Sucking Chest Wound, but gunshot wounds really do have a mind of their own.

Shortness of Breath

There are three really important organs in the chest: one heart and two lungs. That means gnarly chest trauma has better than a 65% chance of interfering with breathing. There are types of trauma that aren't covered here, but the most important thing is to make sure your patient has a pulse and can breathe. Here's how to tell if breathing is a problem.
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