Understanding the Impact of Sternal Fractures on Health and Well-being

Sternal Fractures

The human sternum, or breastbone, is a crucial component of the chest, providing structural support and protection to vital organs like the heart and lungs. Sternal fractures, though relatively uncommon, can have significant implications for an individual’s health and well-being. In this blog post, we will delve into the causes, symptoms, and treatment options for sternal fractures, shedding light on this often overlooked aspect of chest injuries.

Causes of Sternal Fractures

Sternal fractures typically result from a blunt force trauma to the chest, and the causes can vary widely. Here are some common scenarios that may lead to sternal fractures:

  • Motor Vehicle Accidents: Collisions, particularly head-on collisions or those resulting in rapid deceleration, can subject the chest to powerful forces. The impact of the body against the steering wheel or dashboard can cause a sternal fracture.
  • Falls: A direct impact on the chest during a fall, especially from a significant height, can lead to sternal fractures. This may occur in accidents involving slips, trips, or falls.
  • Sports Injuries: High-impact sports, such as football, rugby, or hockey, carry an increased risk of sternal fractures. Collisions with other players or direct blows to the chest can cause significant trauma.
  • Physical Assault: Deliberate blows or kicks to the chest during altercations or assaults can result in sternal fractures. The forceful impact from a punch or kick can cause the sternum to fracture.
  • Bicycle or Motorcycle Accidents: Similar to motor vehicle accidents, accidents involving bicycles or motorcycles can result in chest trauma, leading to sternal fractures.
  • Industrial Accidents: Individuals working in industries where there is a risk of chest injury, such as construction or manufacturing, may be at an increased risk of sternal fractures if exposed to blunt force trauma.
  • Certain Medical Procedures: In some cases, sternal fractures can occur as a rare complication of medical procedures such as cardiopulmonary resuscitation (CPR) or chest compressions during life-saving interventions.

Symptoms of Sternal Fractures

Identifying a sternal fracture may not always be straightforward, as symptoms can vary depending on the severity of the injury. However, common signs associated with sternal fractures include:

  1. Pain: Individuals with sternal fractures often experience localized pain at the site of the sternum. The pain may intensify with specific movements such as deep breathing, coughing, sneezing, or any activity that involves the chest muscles.
  2. Tenderness and Swelling: The sternum may be tender to the touch. Palpating the area around the sternum may elicit pain, and swelling may be present.
  3. Difficulty Breathing: Deep breaths may become painful due to the expansion of the chest wall. Individuals with sternal fractures may naturally adopt shallow breathing patterns to minimize discomfort.
  4. Bruising: External bruising or discoloration over the sternum or the surrounding chest area can be indicative of a sternal fracture. The bruising may develop shortly after the traumatic event.
  5. Crepitus: In some cases, individuals may experience a grating or popping sensation when touching or moving the fractured area. Crepitus is caused by the rubbing of bone fragments against each other.
  6. Guarding or Splinting: Individuals may instinctively guard the chest by limiting movements and avoiding activities that exacerbate pain. This protective mechanism is the body’s way of preventing further injury.
  7. Difficulty Swallowing: In some cases, individuals with sternal fractures may experience difficulty swallowing, particularly if the injury has caused displacement of bone fragments that impinge on the esophagus.
  8. Chest Deformity: Severe sternal fractures may lead to visible deformities in the chest area, such as a noticeable depression or misalignment of the sternum.

It’s important to note that the symptoms of sternal fractures can overlap with other chest injuries or conditions. If an individual experiences persistent chest pain or exhibits these symptoms following a traumatic event, it is crucial to seek medical attention promptly. Diagnosis typically involves a physical examination, imaging studies (such as X-rays or CT scans), and, in some cases, additional diagnostic procedures to assess the extent of the injury and determine the most appropriate course of treatment.

What are some common treatments for sternal fractures?

The treatment of sternal fractures depends on the severity of the injury. While mild fractures may heal with conservative measures, more severe cases may require additional interventions. Here are common treatment options for sternal fractures:

  1. Pain Management:
    • Over-the-counter pain relievers (such as acetaminophen or nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs) may be recommended to alleviate pain.
    • Prescription pain medications may be prescribed for more severe pain.
  2. Rest and Limited Activity:
    • Rest is crucial for the healing process. Individuals with sternal fractures are often advised to avoid activities that strain the chest muscles.
    • Supportive measures, such as using pillows for comfort and avoiding heavy lifting, can aid in reducing strain on the injured area.
  3. Ice Packs:
    • Applying ice packs to the affected area in the initial stages can help reduce swelling and alleviate pain. However, care should be taken to avoid direct skin contact to prevent frostbite.
  4. Bracing:
    • In some cases, especially when there is instability or displacement of the fractured segments, a brace or supportive bandage may be prescribed. This helps stabilize the chest and promotes healing.
  5. Physical Therapy:
    • Rehabilitation exercises guided by a physical therapist can help restore strength and flexibility to the chest muscles. These exercises are introduced gradually to prevent further injury.
  6. Surgical Intervention:
    • While rare, severe sternal fractures may require surgical intervention. Surgery may be considered if there is significant displacement of bone fragments, the risk of non-union (failure of the bones to heal), or damage to surrounding structures.
    • Surgical techniques may involve the use of plates, screws, or wires to stabilize the fractured sternum.
  7. Follow-Up Imaging:
    • Follow-up imaging studies, such as X-rays or CT scans, may be conducted to monitor the healing progress and ensure proper alignment of the fractured segments.
  8. Pulmonary Care:
    • Individuals with sternal fractures may be at risk of respiratory complications due to pain during deep breathing. Pulmonary care measures, including incentive spirometry, may be implemented to prevent respiratory issues.

It’s essential for individuals with sternal fractures to follow their healthcare provider’s recommendations closely and attend follow-up appointments. Early diagnosis and appropriate treatment contribute to a more favorable outcome, reducing the risk of complications and promoting a smoother recovery. Individuals experiencing symptoms of sternal fractures should seek prompt medical attention for an accurate diagnosis and personalized treatment plan.

How long does it take to recover from a sternal fracture?

Most people are able to fully recover from a sternal fracture in a few months, the average recovery time being 10 and a half weeks. Recovery time may be longer if surgery was required during treatment. To avoid developing a chest infection during recovery, it is important to take deep breaths regularly, avoid suppressing the need to cough, and avoid taking cough medicine.

Can you die from a sternal fracture?

The mortality rate for people with sternal fracture is high, at an estimated 25–45%. However, this is mostly due to the associated injuries, not the fracture itself. Isolated sternal fractures have a very low mortality rate, less than 1%. If you have a sternal fracture, you should seek medical attention and follow your doctor’s advice.

Can I exercise with a sternal fracture?

A sternal fracture is a serious injury that requires proper medical care and rehabilitation. Exercising with a sternal fracture can be risky and should be done only under the guidance of a doctor or a physiotherapist. Some general precautions to follow are¹²:

  • Avoid any physical activity that causes pain, swelling, or bruising in the chest area.
  • Avoid pushing, pulling, lifting, or any activity that involves heavy lifting or placing stress on the sternum.
  • Avoid lying face down or applying direct pressure or impact to the chest.
  • Do gentle breathing exercises to promote lung expansion and prevent lung complications.
  • Do gentle shoulder and trunk stretching exercises to relieve muscle spasm and improve posture and mobility.

Please consult your doctor before starting any exercise program with a sternal fracture. Your doctor will assess the severity and stability of your fracture and advise you on the appropriate type, intensity, and duration of exercise. You may also benefit from the help of a physiotherapist who can design a personalized exercise plan for you and monitor your progress. Exercising with a sternal fracture can help you heal faster and prevent complications, but it must be done safely and carefully.

How can I prevent a sternal fracture?

A sternal fracture is a rare but serious injury that occurs due to blunt trauma to the chest, usually from motor vehicle accidents. To prevent a sternal fracture, you should follow these general precautions:

  • Wear a seat belt and drive safely to avoid collisions.
  • Wear protective equipment such as chest pads or helmets when playing high-impact sports or working at high-rise construction sites.
  • Avoid activities that involve repetitive upper body use or stress on the sternum, especially if you have osteoporosis, osteopenia, or kyphosis.
  • Maintain good posture and bone health by exercising regularly, eating a balanced diet, and taking calcium and vitamin D supplements if needed.

If you have a sternal fracture, you should seek medical attention and follow the treatment and rehabilitation plan prescribed by your doctor or physiotherapist. This may include pain management, rest, breathing exercises, stretching exercises, and surgery in some cases.


Sternal fractures, though relatively uncommon, can have significant implications for an individual’s health and well-being. Recognizing the causes and symptoms of sternal fractures is crucial for prompt diagnosis and appropriate treatment. The recovery process varies depending on the severity of the injury, with most people fully recovering within a few months. While the mortality rate for isolated sternal fractures is low, seeking medical attention and following a healthcare provider’s advice is essential for the best possible outcome. Increased awareness of sternal fractures can contribute to timely intervention and improved overall recovery for those affected by this often overlooked aspect of chest injuries.


This blog post is for informational purposes only and should not be considered as medical advice. It is essential to consult with a qualified healthcare professional for accurate diagnosis and appropriate treatment based on individual circumstances. The author and publisher do not accept any responsibility for any liabilities, losses, or risks incurred as a result of the information provided in this blog post.

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