Background: Multiple rib fracture causes severe pain that can seriously compromise respiratory mechanics and exacerbate underlying lung injury and pre-existing respiratory disease, predisposing to respiratory failure. The cornerstone of management is early institution of effective pain relief, the subject of this review.
Methods: A MEDLINE search was conducted for the years 1966 through and up to December 2002 for human studies written in English using the keywords "rib fractures", "analgesia", "blunt chest trauma", "thoracic injury", and "nerve block". The reference list of key articles was also searched for relevant articles. The various analgesic techniques used in patients with multiple fractured ribs were summarized.
Results: Analgesia could be provided using systemic opioids, transcutaneous electrical nerve stimulation or non steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs. Alternatively, regional analgesic techniques such as intercostal nerve block, epidural analgesia, intrathecal opioids, interpleural analgesia and thoracic paravertebral block have been used effectively. Although invasive, in general, regional blocks tend to be more effective than systemic opioids, and produce less systemic side effects.
Conclusion: Based on current evidence it is difficult to recommend a single method that can be safely and effectively used for analgesia in all circumstances in patients with multiple fractured ribs. By understanding the strengths and weaknesses of each analgesic technique, the clinician can weigh the risks and benefits and individualize pain management based on the clinical setting and the extent of trauma.