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Rib fractures: the lesser-known risks

Rib fractures are often perceived as injuries that are, although initially painful, conservatively managed and heal relatively quickly in a matter of weeks or months, without any impact on the surrounding organs or the patient’s long-term prognosis or life expectancy. 

However, is this view more of a myth, particularly in the elderly generation?

I was interested to read an article by Dr Henry Alexander, a consultant in general and geriatric medicine, recently written in the Association of Personal Injury Lawyers’ recent Personal Injury Focus magazine. The article described multiple ways in which specialised frailty care can help elderly patients. However, the part that drew my attention was the section relating to trauma.

Expert personal injury lawyers at Irwin Mitchell often assist clients who've experienced trauma, whether that be as a result of a road traffic collision, an accident at work, injuries caused by animals, a ‘slip and trip’ type accident or a fall from height. A common injury caused by trauma is fractured ribs.

Rib fractures – symptoms and treatment

Clients who have suffered fractured ribs may experience acute pain or discomfort in their chest area (particularly on inhalation), swelling and tenderness around the affected ribs and occasionally, bruising on the skin. 

Unlike fractures of many other bones in the body, the NHS website describes how ribs which remain in alignment whilst fractured “cannot be easily splinted or supported like other bones, so they are usually left to heal naturally” which means that there's “often no need for an X-ray”. 

Just a few years ago, my father suffered a nasty injury while skiing and I was able to see for myself the stark difference in the extent of treatment that he underwent for his fractured thumb, as opposed to his multiple fractured ribs.

Complications and the lesser-known risks

It's understandable that there can be complications where a client injures themselves and their ribs move out of alignment, which can cause punctures or other damage to the lungs or other organs. These are injuries which can sometimes be fatal. 

However, Dr Alexander’s article describes the lesser-known risks that are caused by rib fractures, even where the ribs remain in alignment. These risks are increased in the older generation. 

He describes how “rib fractures are associated with greater risks, which are not documented and are not common knowledge”. He goes on to describe how in one study, the mortality rate was 10% for younger adults (18-64 years) and 22% for older adults (over 64 years) whereas, the risk of pneumonia was almost double (17% v 31%). The risk of pneumonia is likely higher in rib fracture patients as, due to the pain, they may be unable to breathe deeply or cough. In addition to this, trauma patients have often experienced multiple injuries at once, such as other orthopaedic or neurological injuries, which may make it more difficult for them to mobilise.

Although there's no operative treatment for ribs which have fractured but remain in alignment, medical care is still required to monitor a patient for any potential complications as described above.  

Specialist support 

Clients who have suffered trauma, including rib fractures, will inevitably experience symptoms of pain and discomfort. However, rib fractures and other injuries caused by negligence have a broader impact, not only in the sense that there are possible health complications, but also in terms of a wider impact on the client’s life generally.  

One example is that our clients may, as a result of their injury, suddenly be unable to work their usual hours, or their normal job role. In the worst-case scenario, they may be unable to work at all. They might find that they are having to navigate the welfare system, often for the first time in their lives. Our bespoke welfare benefits advice team can help clients to understand the benefits to which they are entitled.

After their injury, clients may benefit from all kinds of support and rehabilitation services, including case management, physiotherapy and occupational therapy to name a few. These services operate with the aim to restore clients both physically and mentally to their pre-injury condition, as far as that is possible. 

Instructing a specialist serious injury solicitor enables clients to access vital interim payments which fund early, life-changing rehabilitation and support services privately. There is also the possibility lawyers will be able to provide in-house support and rehabilitation coordinators who offer a tailored service to meet the needs of each individual client’s recovery.

Find out more about Irwin Mitchell's expertise in supporting people following injury at our dedicated personal injury section