A middle-aged martial arts enthusiast was training in Krav Maga, and participated in a high-contact punching and grappling sparring exercise in which his (younger, heavier) partner threw him to the ground and landed on him. During the throw the patient felt a ‘pop’ in his right side, and wondered whether he’d fractured a rib. During the subsequent five rounds against two additional sparring partners he noticed a clicking in the same area every time he was grappling, and pain in the right side when pushing up off the floor with his right arm. As a trained emergency physician, he assessed his own level of breathing comfort throughout the training to reassure himself he didn’t have a significant pneumothorax, and therefore elected to continue to fight in the interests of assessing his ability to defend himself while injured.
Pain on deep inspiration, coughing, and squeezing the chest suggested a fractured rib, so out of curiosity at work the next day he ultrasounded the area of maximum tenderness:
Examination of the lung confirmed pleural sliding, B-lines, and ‘pearls on a string’, which excluded pneumothorax.
Sonography is more sensitive than radiography for the detection of rib fractures and may also detect costochondral junction injuries and disruption of costal cartilage1. This video from Hennepin County Medical Centre takes you through the simple procedure:
Although the management of rib fractures is no different from that of chest wall contusion, knowledge of the presence of fracture in this case is helpful to this patient in deciding when to return to the questionably sane ‘hobby’ of fighting bigger guys half his age.
The patient’s consent was obtained prior to the publication of the ultrasound image.
OBJECTIVE: This study was undertaken to compare the sensitivities of sonography and radiography for revealing acute rib fracture.
SUBJECTS AND METHODS: Chest radiography and rib sonography were performed on 50 patients with suspected rib fractures. Sonography was performed with a 9- or 12-MHz linear transducer. Fractures were identified by a disruption of the anterior margin of the rib, costochondral junction, or costal cartilage. The incidence, location, and degree of displacement of fractures revealed by radiography and sonography were compared. Sonography was performed again after 3 weeks in 37 subjects.
RESULTS: At presentation, radiographs revealed eight rib fractures in six (12%) of 50 patients and sonography revealed 83 rib fractures in 39 (78%) of 50 patients. Seventy-four (89%) of the 83 sonographically detected fractures were located in the rib, four (5%) were located at the costochondral junction, and five (6%) in the costal cartilage. Repeated sonography after 3 weeks showed evidence of healing in all reexamined fractures. Combining sonography at presentation and after 3 weeks, 88% of subjects had sustained a fracture.
CONCLUSION: Sonography reveals more fractures than does radiography and will reveal fractures in most patients presenting with suspected rib fracture. Further scientific studies are needed to clarify the appropriate role for sonography in rib fracture detection.