Randomized Controlled Trial of Surgical Rib Fixation to Nonoperative Management in Severe Chest Wall Injury

Ann Surg. 2023 Sep 1;278(3):357-365. doi: 10.1097/SLA.0000000000005950. Epub 2023 Jun 15.


Objective: To compare the effectiveness of surgical stabilization of rib fractures (SSRFs) to nonoperative management in severe chest wall injury.

Background: SSRF has been shown to improve outcomes in patients with clinical flail chest and respiratory failure. However, the effect of SSRF outcomes in severe chest wall injuries without clinical flail chest is unknown.

Methods: Randomized controlled trial comparing SSRF to nonoperative management in severe chest wall injury, defined as: (1) a radiographic flail segment without clinical flail or (2) ≥5 consecutive rib fractures or (3) any rib fracture with bicortical displacement. Randomization was stratified by the unit of admission as a proxy for injury severity. Primary outcome was hospital length of stay (LOS). Secondary outcomes included intensive care unit (ICU) LOS, ventilator days, opioid exposure, mortality, and incidences of pneumonia and tracheostomy. Quality of life at 1, 3, and 6 months was measured using the EQ-5D-5L survey.

Results: Eighty-four patients were randomized in an intention-to-treat analysis (usual care = 42, SSRF = 42). Baseline characteristics were similar between groups. The numbers of total fractures, displaced fractures, and segmental fractures per patient were also similar, as were the incidences of displaced fractures and radiographic flail segments. Hospital LOS was greater in the SSRF group. ICU LOS and ventilator days were similar. After adjusting for the stratification variable, hospital LOS remained greater in the SSRF group (RR: 1.48, 95% CI: 1.17-1.88). ICU LOS (RR: 1.65, 95% CI: 0.94-2.92) and ventilator days (RR: 1.49, 95% CI: 0.61--3.69) remained similar. Subgroup analysis showed that patients with displaced fractures were more likely to have LOS outcomes similar to their usual care counterparts. At 1 month, SSRF patients had greater impairment in mobility [3 (2-3) vs 2 (1-2), P = 0.012] and self-care [2 (1-2) vs 2 (2-3), P = 0.034] dimensions of the EQ-5D-5L.

Conclusions: In severe chest wall injury, even in the absence of clinical flail chest, the majority of patients still reported moderate to extreme pain and impairment of usual physical activity at one month. SSRF increased hospital LOS and did not provide any quality of life benefit for up to 6 months.

Publication types

  • Randomized Controlled Trial
  • Research Support, N.I.H., Extramural

MeSH terms

  • Flail Chest* / complications
  • Flail Chest* / surgery
  • Humans
  • Length of Stay
  • Quality of Life
  • Retrospective Studies
  • Rib Fractures* / complications
  • Rib Fractures* / surgery
  • Ribs
  • Thoracic Wall* / surgery