Thousands of Americans suffer severe chest injuries in car accidents every year. These traumatic injuries can happen in an instant but leave lasting health consequences if not treated promptly and adequately. If you’re hurt from a car accident, go to the doctor for medical care you need.
What Causes Chest Injuries in Car Accidents?
There are several ways chest injuries typically occur during a car accident:
Blunt Force Impact
- The chest strikes the steering wheel, dashboard, or side door with great force during the collision. This can break bones and bruise or tear tissue.
- The seatbelt locks in place to restrain the body, but the resulting pressure on the chest can fracture ribs and sternum.
- Front airbags deploy at around 200 mph, cushioning but still impacting the chest at high speeds.
- When a fast-moving car suddenly stops, the internal organs keep moving forward due to inertia and can tear blood vessels or impact the chest wall.
- The lungs may collide with the inside of the chest, bruising or rupturing the delicate lung tissue.
- The heart may tear free from its supports and beat irregularly after a significant deceleration.
- The aorta may be stretched and damaged from the body’s sudden stop.
- Broken ribs may puncture lungs, heart, or major blood vessels during extreme crashes.
- Objects displaced inside the car, like steering wheel columns, metal shards, etc., may impale the chest.
- Large bone fragments can penetrate tissue after deceleration fractures of the sternum or ribs.
- After the primary impact, the body is still moving forward and may strike the car interior again, causing additional damage.
- Unrestrained occupants may be ejected from the vehicle and experience ground impact or crush injuries under the car.
Types of Chest Injuries from Car Accidents
Chest injuries encompass damage to the ribcage itself as well as trauma to the delicate organs and blood vessels inside it. Major injury categories include:
- Broken Ribs – The ribs most commonly fracture from direct frontal or side impacts. Multiple rib fractures are possible.
- Flail Chest – Occurs when multiple ribs are fractured in several places, causing a free-floating section of the chest wall that cannot correctly expand or contract during breathing. This is a critical, life-threatening injury.
- Sternum Fracture – The sternum can break from direct trauma on impact, creating sharp bone fragments.
- Costochondral Separation – The cartilage connecting the ribs and sternum can tear away from the bone.
- Pulmonary Contusions – Bruising of the lung tissue that causes difficulty breathing and impaired gas exchange.
- Pneumothorax – Air leaks from a punctured lung into the chest cavity, leading to lung collapse.
- Hemothorax – Blood accumulates in the chest cavity from an injured blood vessel, compressing the lungs.
- Hemopneumothorax – Both air and blood fill the chest cavity, causing a medical emergency.
- Pericardial Tamponade – Blood fills the sac surrounding the heart, preventing it from beating. Rapidly fatal if not drained.
- Myocardial Contusion – Bruising of the heart muscle that can alter electrical rhythm and impair function.
- Aortic Dissection – The wall of the aorta artery tears, allowing blood to split its layers. Often fatal.
- Aortic Rupture – The aorta breaks entirely apart, causing severe internal bleeding. Without surgery, it leads to death within minutes.
- Traumatic Aortic Aneurysm – The aorta wall weakens and bulges from injury. It may rupture later if not repaired in time.
Soft Tissue Injuries
- Laceration – Tearing of chest wall muscles, blood vessels, or lung tissue.
- Hematoma – Bleeding outside the blood vessels into surrounding chest tissue, causing bruising.
- Tracheobronchial Injury – Damage to the windpipe and bronchi leading to the lungs.
Anatomy of the Chest Area
To understand how chest injuries occur, it helps to review the anatomy of the chest area.
Sternum – Also called the breastbone, this long flattened bone runs down the center of the chest. The ribs connect to the sternum in the front.
Intercostal muscles – These are the muscles between each rib. They assist in breathing by allowing the ribcage to expand and contract.
Lungs – The two spongy, air-filled organs protected by the ribcage. The lungs provide oxygen to the rest of the body through respiration.
Heart – The fist-sized, four-chambered muscle that pumps blood throughout the body, located between the lungs.
Major blood vessels – The aorta, vena cava, pulmonary arteries, and pulmonary veins transport blood to and from the heart and lungs.
Diaphragm – The thin muscle below the lungs that contracts and relaxes to facilitate breathing.
Connective tissues – Cartilage, tendons, and ligaments hold all the chest components together and enable movement.
Administering First Aid After Crash
While waiting for emergency medical services after a severe accident, some basic first aid steps can assist an injured person:
Assess Vital Signs
Check their pulse, breathing rate, and alertness level, and look for any life-threatening bleeding. Give rescue breaths or CPR if they are unresponsive and not breathing normally.
Use direct pressure and wound packing to slow any substantial external bleeding from open chest wounds.
Leave Impaled Objects
Do not remove impaled objects protruding from the chest, as they may be plugging life-threatening internal bleeding. Stabilize them in place.
Position for Comfort
Allow the person to rest in the position they find most comfortable and facilitate the most accessible breathing. Do not move them unnecessarily.
Treat for Shock
Keep the person warm using coats/blankets and raise their legs above heart level if possible. Help them remain calm.
Ask what happened and if they have any medical conditions. Relay all details to emergency responders.
Taking these steps can significantly improve the odds of survival for those with chest trauma before they receive definitive hospital care.
Diagnosis and Medical Treatment
Once emergency teams arrive, injured individuals need to be transported rapidly to a trauma center equipped to handle severe chest injuries. Diagnosis and treatment options include:
Chest X-rays detect fractured bones, foreign objects, and blood/air in the chest cavity. CT scans give detailed views of organ damage and sources of bleeding. Echocardiograms check for fluid around the heart and impaired heart function.
- Pulse oximetry tracks blood oxygen saturation levels.
- Arterial blood gases assess oxygen and carbon dioxide levels.
- Electrocardiograms monitor heart rhythm for any irregularities.
- Oxygen is administered through masks, nasal tubes, or intubation to aid impaired breathing.
- Plastic tubes are inserted between the ribs into the chest cavity to drain out blood or air and reinflate a collapsed lung.
- IV fluids and blood transfusions help restore blood volume from bleeding or shock.
- Medications like vasopressors may be used to increase low blood pressure.
- It is required for severe injuries like flail chest, vascular rupture, cardiac bruising, etc.
- Repair of bones and tissue, removal of debris, and stopping bleeding are common goals.
- Medications from over-the-counter options to potent opioids control chest injury pain.
- Epidural analgesia injections block pain signals with minimal effects on breathing.
Rehabilitation and physical therapy will likely be needed after hospital discharge for full recovery.
Common Long-Term Effects
While many chest injuries eventually heal, some can have lasting consequences if not adequately treated:
- Chronic Pain – Injuries to bone, cartilage, and nerves may cause persistent chest wall pain.
- Reduced Lung Function – Scarring and stiffness of lung tissue from injuries hinder breathing capacity.
- Pneumonia Risk – Lung tissue damage raises vulnerability to serious respiratory infections.
- Heart Disease – Contusions and vascular injury accelerate the potential for later heart attack or stroke.
- Psychological Trauma – The stress of a significant injury can result in PTSD, depression, or anxiety.
- Disability – For severe unrepaired damage, permanent disability is possible, requiring lifestyle adjustments.
Why Chest Injury Victims Need Legal Representation
The long healing process for severe chest trauma is made even more difficult by the financial stress accident victims also face. Some ways a personal injury attorney can help after a car crash:
- Handle communications with insurance companies so the focus can remain on recovery.
- Investigate accident details like responsible parties and liability factors.
- Determine all current and future costs related to medical treatment, lost wages, and impact on quality of life.
- Calculate and pursue fair compensation through negotiation or trial based on costs and damages.
- Review any settlement offers to ensure they adequately cover present and future needs.
- Explain legal options so injured persons make informed decisions about their path forward.
- Allow victims to have an advocate focused on securing damages so they can concentrate on their health.
How much is a chest injury case worth?
The value depends on the severity of the injuries and resulting medical costs, lost income, and non-economic damages. Minor cases may settle from $10,000-$25,000, while significant injuries requiring extensive hospitalization and surgery can exceed $100,000.
How long do I have to file a chest injury claim?
The statute of limitations in Oklahoma is two years after the accident.
How long do these cases typically take to resolve?
Straightforward claims may resolve in a few months, while severe injuries involving maximum medical improvement and permanent impairment ratings can take over a year. An attorney can help expedite matters.