Chest Injuries in sports are rare but serious

Among the most serious injuries in sports are those involving trauma to the chest. Although rare, these injuries are most often seen with high-velocity impact as in motor sports. Other sports where chest injuries are seen involve animals weighing over 1,000 pounds like professional bull riding, which will be coming to the Mohegan Sun Arena this weekend.

Chest injuries are those that result from damage to the vital organs within the chest cavity, including the protective muscles and bones around the chest.

Trauma is the typical cause of any damage and can be the result of a penetrating wound or a closed compression mechanism.

Over the years, much has been done to protect athletes from these life- threatening injuries. The earliest form of chest protection was for baseball catchers, protecting them from a direct blow to the heart. Football and hockey players often wear rib protectors. Racing vehicles are equipped with devices to avoid penetrating trauma from the steering wheel.

Professional bull riders began wearing protective vests after the death of Lane Frost in 1989. They became mandatory in 1993. The vest is made of a closed-cell foam material that is protective while maintaining flexibility.

Tandy Freeman, MD, is an orthopedic surgeon specializing in bull riding and rodeo injuries. “When we compared the frequency and severity of chest injuries from before mandatory chest protection use to those after using chest protection, we saw a ten-fold decline,” Freeman said.

“The typical chest injury we see is when a fractured rib will penetrate the lung,” according to Juan Escalon, MD, a cardio-thoracic surgeon on the Backus Hospital Medical staff who treats these injuries. “Chest trauma that involves the heart or major blood vessels (like the one suffered by Frost) requires emergency surgery.”

We have made great strides in sports medicine when dealing with chest injuries, but it is apparent that the seriousness of these injuries requires immediate treatment by trained personnel, beginning at the arena.

Anthony G. Alessi, MD, is Chief of Neurology at The William W. Backus Hospital and in private practice at NeuroDiagnostics, LLC, in Norwich. E-mail him at, listen to his podcasts, comment on his blog or buy his book at

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