The management of flail chest

Thorac Surg Clin. 2007 Feb;17(1):25-33. doi: 10.1016/j.thorsurg.2007.02.005.


Flail chest is an uncommon consequence of blunt trauma. It usually occurs in the setting of a high-speed motor vehicle crash and can carry a high morbidity and mortality. The outcome of flail chest injury is a function of associated injuries. Isolated flail chest may be successfully managed with aggressive pulmonary toilet including facemask oxygen, CPAP, and chest physiotherapy. Adequate analgesia is of paramount importance in patient recovery and may contribute to the return of normal respiratory mechanics. Early intubation and mechanical ventilation is paramount in patients with refractory respiratory failure or other serious traumatic injuries. Prolonged mechanical ventilation is associated with the development of pneumonia and a poor outcome. Tracheotomy and frequent flexible bronchoscopy should be considered to provide effective pulmonary toilet. Surgical stabilization is associated with a faster ventilator wean, shorter ICU time, less hospital cost, and recovery of pulmonary function in a select group of patients with flail chest. Open fixation is appropriate in patients who are unable to be weaned from the ventilator secondary to the mechanics of flail chest. Persistent pain, severe chest wall instability, and a progressive decline in pulmonary function testing in a patient with flail chest are also indications for surgical stabilization. Open fixation is also indicated for flail chest when thoracotomy is performed for other concomitant injuries. There is no role for surgical stabilization for patients with severe pulmonary contusion. The underlying lung injury and respiratory failure preclude early ventilator weaning. Supportive therapy and pneumatic stabilization is the recommended approach for this patient subset.

Publication types

  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Flail Chest / diagnosis*
  • Flail Chest / physiopathology
  • Flail Chest / therapy*
  • Humans
  • Prognosis