Background: We sought to ascertain the extent to which advanced age influences the morbidity and mortality after rib fractures (fxs), to define the relationship between number of rib fractures and morbidity and mortality, and to evaluate the influence of analgesic technique on outcome.
Methods: A retrospective cohort study involving all 277 patients > or = 65 years old with rib fxs admitted to a Level I trauma center over 10 years was undertaken. The control group consisted of 187 randomly selected patients, 18 to 64 years old, with rib fxs admitted over the same time period. Outcomes included pulmonary complications, number of ventilator days, length of intensive care unit and hospital stay (LOS), disposition, and mortality. The specific analgesic technique used was also examined.
Results: The two groups had similar mean number of rib fxs (3.6 elderly vs. 4.0 young), mean chest Abbreviated Injury Scores (3.0 vs. 3.0), and mean Injury Severity Score (20.7 vs. 21.4). However, mean number of ventilator days (4.3 vs. 3.1), intensive care unit days (6.1 vs. 4.0), and LOS (15.4 vs. 10.7 days) were longer for the elderly patients. Pneumonia occurred in 31% of elderly versus 17% of young (p < 0.01) and mortality was 22% for the elderly versus 10% for the young (p < 0.01). Mortality and pneumonia rates increased as the number of rib fxs increased with and odds ratio for death of 1.19 and for pneumonia of 1.16 per each additional rib fracture (p < 0.001). The use of epidural analgesia in the elderly (LOS >2 days) was associated with a 10% mortality versus 16% without the use of an epidural (p = 0.28). In the younger group (LOS >2 days), mortality with and without the use of an epidural was 0% and 5%, respectively.
Conclusion: Elderly patients who sustain blunt chest trauma with rib fxs have twice the mortality and thoracic morbidity of younger patients with similar injuries. For each additional rib fracture in the elderly, mortality increases by 19% and the risk of pneumonia by 27%. As the number of rib fractures increases, there is a significant increase in morbidity and mortality in both groups, but with different patterns for each group. Further prospective study is needed to determine the utility of epidural analgesia in this population.