Episode 50: Rib fractures and surgical plating with Ron Barbosa

We look at the rib fracture patient requiring ICU admission, including a discussion of surgical repair, with Dr. Ron Barbosa (@rbarbosa91), Portland trauma surgeon and SICU director at Legacy Emmanual Medical Center.

Takeaway lessons

  1. Algorithms and protocols for admitting disposition exist but are generally poorly predictive. ICU admission in rib fracture patients is still most often a matter of clinician judgment and bed availability.
  2. Pain management should include multi-modal therapies including acetaminophen, lidocaine patches, a muscle relaxer such as methocarbamol, and perhaps NSAIDs, as well as a reasonable opioid regimen (oral and/or IV). An opioid IV PCA is a good next step, followed by regional/neuraxial anesthesia, most often a thoracic epidural, although other options such as On-Q pumps also exist. Pain consultation services (i.e. via anesthesia) are a good resource.
  3. LMWH (e.g. enoxaparin) is a potential contraindication to an epidural. Consider holding DVT chemoprophylaxis if it’s potentially on the table, or going to daily instead of twice-daily dosing.
  4. The primary risk to rib fracture patients is respiratory deterioration. Unfortunately, there is no clear timeline when this risk has passed; judgment needs to be used with an eye to their overall trajectory and how much support they’re requiring.
  5. Surgical rib fixation is determined by anatomic accessibility, radiographic appearance, concern for injury to other structures, and other factors. The main indications are usually prevention of respiratory decline and stabilizing bony displacement at risk of injuring the lung and vessels.
  6. The most obvious ribs to repair are severe chest wall deformity and flail segments. Patients on the ventilator are good candidates as well, as fixation may allow them to be liberated.
  7. Ribs 1-2 are generally not accessible, and 3 usually not as well. Ribs 11-12 are accessible but (since they’re floating) fixation is usually not considered helpful to stabilizing the chest. Thus, most repairs are limited to ribs 4-10.
  8. Imaging is helpful but not definitive. Some of the worst-looking scans will do well clinically without repair, and vice versa. However, note that some imaging will worsen over time, and occasionally are worth repeating after the admitting scans; displacement may worsen or effusions may grow.
  9. Pleural effusions (usually hemothorax) are relevant insofar as a growing effusions may need VATS to evacuate it, and if VATS is being performed it’s sensible to perform plating at the same time, so trying to align the timing is helpful, although not always possible. Guidelines suggest plating ribs within the first three days when possible—not always enough time to determine the need for thoracoscopy.
  10. Trauma surgery, thoracic surgery, and orthopedics all might do this procedure depending on the local environment, but often it comes down to trauma. This may be influenced by psychological secondary factors, as it’s a long, laborious, poorly-reimbursed procedure, and hence may tend to fall to the primary team.
  11. CT reconstruction is invaluable for surgical planning, including the surgical approach (potentially lateral thoracotomy, vertical or hockey-stick incisions near the spine, etc). Some are specialized to this procedure and hence require specific experience with them, and not all fractures may be reachable with one incision. Try to avoid cutting muscles of respiration.
  12. Imaging will also guide the decision of which ribs seem to warrant repair, and which are amenable to repair given anatomic considerations. Not all fractures in a flail segment need to be repaired to successfully stabilize the chest.
  13. Repair consists of a series of specialized plates that require customized bending and fixation. These techniques are well-known to orthopedists but less so for trauma surgeons.
  14. Other than the usual complications of surgery (bleeding, anesthesia, etc), complications are relatively few. Plates may occasionally need to be removed for pain or infection, but rarely.

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