Sternal Dislocations: Causes, Symptoms, Diagnosis, Treatment and Recovery

Sternal Dislocations

Sternal dislocations are rare occurrences that involve the displacement of the sternum, the flat bone located at the center of the chest. While relatively infrequent, these injuries demand attention due to their unique nature and potential complications. In this blog post, we will delve into the intricacies of sternal dislocations, exploring their causes, symptoms, diagnosis, and treatment options.

Understanding Sternal Dislocations

The sternum, commonly known as the breastbone, plays a crucial role in protecting vital organs such as the heart and lungs. Sternal dislocations occur when the sternum is forcefully displaced from its normal position. This trauma can result from various incidents, including high-impact accidents, falls, or sports injuries.

Causes of Sternal Dislocations

Sternal dislocations result from significant trauma to the chest, and several factors can contribute to the occurrence of this uncommon injury. Understanding the causes is essential for both prevention and effective management. Here are the primary causes of sternal dislocations:

  • Traumatic Events:
    • Motor Vehicle Accidents: High-impact collisions, particularly frontal crashes, can exert significant force on the chest, leading to sternal dislocations.
    • Falls: Accidents involving falls from heights can result in direct impact on the chest, causing the sternum to dislocate.
    • Sports Injuries: Athletes engaged in contact sports or activities with a high risk of chest trauma, such as football or hockey, are susceptible to sternal dislocations.
  • Blunt Force or Direct Blows:
    • Any forceful, direct blow to the chest can potentially displace the sternum. This can occur in various scenarios, including physical altercations, accidents, or sports-related impacts.
  • Osteoporosis and Bone Weakening:
    • Conditions that weaken bones, such as osteoporosis, can increase the risk of sternal dislocations. Weakened bone structure makes the sternum more susceptible to displacement even with less severe trauma.
  • Age and Fragility:
    • Elderly individuals or those with fragile bone structures may be more vulnerable to sternal dislocations. The natural aging process can contribute to reduced bone density and strength.
  • Occupational Hazards:
    • Certain occupations or activities that involve a higher risk of chest trauma may predispose individuals to sternal dislocations. This includes professions with an increased likelihood of accidents or physical confrontations.
  • Congenital Factors:
    • In rare cases, individuals may have congenital abnormalities or conditions that affect the structure and stability of the sternum, making them more prone to dislocations.
  • Forceful Hyperextension or Hyperflexion:
    • Unusual movements of the chest, such as forceful hyperextension (backward bending) or hyperflexion (forward bending), can contribute to sternal dislocations. This can occur in accidents or falls where the chest experiences extreme movements.

Symptoms of Sternal Dislocations

Identifying sternal dislocations can be challenging, as symptoms may not be immediately apparent. However, individuals who have experienced trauma to the chest should be vigilant for the following signs:

  • Chest Pain:
    • Persistent and localized chest pain is a primary symptom of sternal dislocations. The pain may worsen during movements such as deep breathing, coughing, or physical activity.
  • Swelling and Bruising:
    • Visible swelling and bruising around the chest area are common indicators of trauma. In the case of sternal dislocations, these signs may be associated with the forceful displacement of the sternum.
  • Tenderness to Touch:
    • The affected area may be tender to touch. Gentle pressure on the sternum or the surrounding chest wall may elicit pain and discomfort.
  • Difficulty Breathing:
    • Displacement of the sternum can impede normal lung function, leading to difficulty breathing or shortness of breath. This symptom may be more pronounced during physical exertion.
  • Crepitus:
    • Crepitus refers to a grating or grinding sensation that may be felt or heard when the displaced sternum moves against adjacent structures. This can be a notable sign during a physical examination.
  • Visible Deformity:
    • In some cases, a visible deformity or abnormal protrusion of the sternum may be noticeable. This can be observed during a physical examination or may be apparent to the individual.
  • Radiating Pain:
    • Pain from a sternal dislocation may radiate to other areas of the chest, the back, or even the arms. This can be confusing and may be mistakenly attributed to other causes.
  • Restricted Range of Motion:
    • Individuals with sternal dislocations may experience a restricted range of motion in the chest. Movements such as raising the arms or twisting the torso may be limited due to pain and discomfort.

Diagnostic Process

Diagnosing sternal dislocations involves a combination of clinical assessment, medical history review, and diagnostic imaging. The goal is to accurately identify the displacement of the sternum and assess potential damage to surrounding structures. Here’s an overview of the diagnostic process for sternal dislocations:

Clinical Assessment:

  • Patient History: Gathering information about the circumstances leading to the chest trauma, the nature of the trauma, and the onset of symptoms is crucial. Details about the mechanism of injury and any pre-existing conditions are considered.
  • Physical Examination: A thorough physical examination is conducted, focusing on the chest area. The healthcare provider may palpate the sternum, assess for tenderness, and observe for any visible deformities or swelling.

Imaging Studies:

  • X-rays: X-ray imaging is often the initial diagnostic tool used to visualize the sternum and surrounding structures. Anterior-posterior (frontal) and lateral views can provide a comprehensive assessment of the extent of the sternal displacement.
  • CT Scans: In cases where a more detailed assessment is required, computed tomography (CT) scans may be employed. CT scans offer three-dimensional images that can help in evaluating the severity of the dislocation and identifying associated injuries.
  • MRI Scans: Magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) may be used to assess soft tissues and provide additional information about the extent of damage. This is particularly relevant when there is a suspicion of injury to surrounding ligaments, muscles, or blood vessels.

Additional Diagnostic Procedures:

  • Ultrasound: In some cases, ultrasound may be used to assess the soft tissues and blood vessels in the chest, providing real-time images that can aid in diagnosis.
  • Electrocardiogram (ECG or EKG): If there is a concern about cardiac involvement, an ECG may be performed to assess heart function and rule out any associated cardiac issues.

Consultation with Specialists:

  • Depending on the severity and complexity of the sternal dislocation, consultation with specialists such as orthopedic surgeons, trauma surgeons, or cardiologists may be sought to ensure comprehensive care.

Clinical Correlation:

  • The results of imaging studies are correlated with clinical findings to establish a definitive diagnosis. This includes considering the patient’s symptoms, physical examination findings, and the results of diagnostic imaging.

Treatment Options

The treatment of sternal dislocations depends on the severity of the injury, the presence of associated complications, and the overall health of the individual. Here are the primary treatment options for sternal dislocations:

Conservative Management:

  • Pain Management: Mild cases of sternal dislocation may be managed conservatively with pain relief medications, such as non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) or acetaminophen.
  • Rest and Immobilization: Resting the affected area and avoiding activities that may exacerbate pain or disrupt the healing process is essential. Immobilization with the use of a chest brace or support may be recommended to promote stability.
  • Physical Therapy: Physical therapy plays a crucial role in rehabilitation. Therapists work with patients to improve range of motion, strengthen the chest muscles, and promote overall recovery.

Surgical Intervention:

  • Open Reduction and Internal Fixation (ORIF): In cases of severe sternal dislocation or when conservative measures are ineffective, surgical intervention may be necessary. ORIF involves repositioning the displaced sternum and stabilizing it with the use of wires, plates, or other fixation devices.

Monitoring and Follow-up:

  • Individuals with sternal dislocations require close monitoring to assess the progress of healing and address any emerging issues. Follow-up appointments with healthcare providers, including imaging studies as needed, help ensure that the treatment plan is effective.

Pulmonary Care:

  • Depending on the severity of the sternal dislocation, individuals may experience difficulty breathing. Pulmonary care, including breathing exercises and respiratory therapy, may be incorporated into the treatment plan to improve lung function.

Pain Management:

  • Ongoing pain management is an integral part of the treatment process. Medications may be adjusted as needed, and healthcare providers work with patients to find the most effective and comfortable pain relief strategies.

Patient Education:

  • Educating patients about the nature of the injury, the importance of adherence to treatment plans, and strategies for self-care is crucial. This includes providing guidance on activities to avoid during the recovery period.

Complications Management:

  • In cases where sternal dislocations are associated with complications such as cardiovascular issues or damage to surrounding structures, additional interventions may be required. Treatment plans are adjusted based on the specific needs of each patient.

Psychosocial Support:

  • Coping with the physical and emotional impact of a sternal dislocation can be challenging. Psychosocial support, including counseling and support groups, may be beneficial for individuals during the recovery process.

Recovery Process

Recovery from sternal dislocations is a gradual process that requires patience, adherence to medical guidance, and a comprehensive rehabilitation plan. The timeline for recovery can vary depending on the severity of the injury, the age and overall health of the individual, and the effectiveness of the chosen treatment approach. Here’s an overview of the recovery process:

1. Immediate Post-Injury Period:

  • Pain Management: In the early stages of recovery, pain management is a primary focus. Medications prescribed by healthcare providers, such as pain relievers and anti-inflammatories, help alleviate discomfort.
  • Immobilization: If recommended, wearing a chest brace or support helps immobilize the affected area, providing stability and support during the initial healing phase.

2. Early Rehabilitation:

  • Range of Motion Exercises: Physical therapy typically begins with gentle range of motion exercises to prevent stiffness and improve flexibility in the chest area.
  • Breathing Exercises: Specialized breathing exercises may be introduced to improve lung function and prevent complications associated with chest injuries.

3. Progressive Strength Training:

  • Gradual Intensification: As healing progresses, physical therapy sessions may include progressive strength training exercises. These exercises aim to rebuild muscle strength in the chest and improve overall functionality.
  • Cardiovascular Conditioning: Aerobic exercises may be introduced to enhance cardiovascular fitness, always under the guidance of healthcare professionals to ensure safety.

4. Monitoring and Adjustments:

  • Regular Check-ups: Individuals recovering from sternal dislocations have regular check-ups with healthcare providers to monitor progress. Imaging studies may be conducted to assess the healing of the sternum.
  • Pain Assessment: Ongoing pain assessment helps healthcare providers make necessary adjustments to the treatment plan and pain management strategies.

5. Psychosocial Support:

  • Counseling and Support Groups: Coping with the physical and emotional aspects of recovery may involve counseling or participation in support groups. Psychosocial support is crucial for the overall well-being of the individual.

6. Return to Activities:

  • Guided Return: Returning to normal activities, including work and recreational pursuits, is a gradual process. Healthcare providers guide individuals on when and how to resume specific activities to prevent re-injury.

7. Long-Term Follow-up:

  • Monitoring for Complications: Long-term follow-up is important to monitor for any potential complications, assess the stability of the sternum, and address any lingering issues.

8. Adherence to Medical Advice:

  • Medication and Treatment Adherence: Adhering to prescribed medications, follow-up appointments, and recommendations for ongoing care is essential for a successful recovery.

9. Reintegration into Daily Life:

  • Adapting to Changes: Depending on the severity of the sternal dislocation, individuals may need to adapt to certain changes in their lifestyle. This may involve modifications in physical activities or work tasks to prevent strain on the chest.

10. Preventive Measures:

  • Education on Injury Prevention: Individuals are educated on preventive measures to reduce the risk of future injuries, including strategies for protecting the chest during physical activities.

Recovery from sternal dislocations is a collaborative effort between the individual, healthcare providers, and support networks. Open communication, active participation in rehabilitation, and a positive mindset contribute to a more successful recovery journey. As always, individual experiences may vary, and healthcare professionals tailor the recovery plan to meet the specific needs of each patient.

Conclusion – Sternal Dislocations

Recovery from sternal dislocations is a multifaceted process that requires a combination of medical intervention, rehabilitation, and patient dedication. The immediate post-injury period focuses on pain management and immobilization, followed by a gradual transition to rehabilitation exercises aimed at restoring range of motion and strength. Regular monitoring, both through check-ups and ongoing pain assessment, ensures that adjustments can be made to the treatment plan as needed.

Psychosocial support plays a vital role in helping individuals cope with the challenges of recovery, and returning to normal activities is a carefully guided process. Long-term follow-up remains essential to monitor for potential complications and address any lingering issues. Adherence to medical advice, including prescribed medications and lifestyle modifications, is crucial for a successful recovery.

Through education on injury prevention and adaptive measures, individuals can work towards minimizing the risk of future injuries. Ultimately, the collaborative efforts of healthcare professionals, patients, and support networks contribute to a positive and tailored recovery experience for each individual affected by sternal dislocations. As with any medical condition, consult with healthcare providers for personalized guidance based on individual circumstances.


The information provided in this blog post is for educational purposes only and should not be considered as medical advice. Consult with a qualified healthcare professional for accurate diagnosis and appropriate treatment options based on your individual circumstances.

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