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Cowboys Tony Romo Has a Broken Rib and Pneumothorax

America’s Team’s quarterback, Tony Romo, was taken out of Sunday’s game for a broken rib.  Remarkably, he was able to return to play in the second half.  Today we learned that he had punctured a lung, a condition known as a pneumothorax.  What is this and how long will he be out?


The rib cage is made up of the ribs, collar bone (clavicle), and breast plate (sternum) of the chest.  These bones and the tendons, muscles, and ligaments that connect them serve to protect the internal organs of the chest.  These organs include the lungs, heart, esophagus (a tube running from the mouth to the stomach), and trachea (the tube running from the mouth to the lungs).  There are 12 ribs on either side of the sternum.


Rib breaks or fractures are usually due to a blunt trauma, as with Romo, or a sharp trauma, such as with a gunshot wound.    A break of the ribs can potentially cause damage to the underlying organs.  If the force is great enough, the broken bone can be plunged into the lungs.  The air that was in the lungs now escapes and enters the space between the ribs and the lungs.  This is known as a pneumothorax.    The pneumothorax can be small.  In this case, the puncture usually seals itself and the body removes the air over time.  In a large pneumothorax, the air pressure can build up to the point that the trachea starts to close down.  This is life threatening and can lead to death.


Individuals with a rib break will experience pain, difficulty with deep breathing, coughing, sneezing or even swallowing.  There will be pain when pushing on the rib.  If a pneumothorax develops, the individual may suffer from shortness of breath, difficulty with breathing, difficulty with swallowing, and see a shift of the trachea in the neck.


If you suspect that a rib fracture or pneumothorax, you should seek immediate medical attention.  A physical exam and x-rays are usually performed.


Most rib fractures are treated without surgery.  These breaks usually do not penetrate the underlying organs but are painful.  Pain medications, anti-inflammatories, a brace, ice, rest, and activity modifications are usually enough to treat these injuries.

If a small pneumothorax is present, chest xrays are obtained every day to make sure that the air is going away.  If it enlarges, a chest tube may be needed.  A chest tube is a device that is placed through the skin and between the ribs.  The tube is placed into the space between the lungs and the ribs.  It serves to rest the lungs and get rid of the air between the ribs and the lungs. Very rarely is surgery needed.

If a large pneumothorax is present, a chest tube is needed.  Very rarely is surgery needed.


Most athletes with a simple rib fracture can return to all activities within a few days, as long as the pain is being managed well.  For those with a small pneumothorax, they are able to return to sports within 1-2 weeks. For those with a large pneumothorax, they are able to return to sports within 4-6 weeks.


From the current reports, as long as Romo’s pneumothorax stays small, and if his pain is well controlled, he will be able to play this weekend.  However, he will likely be wearing extra protection around his ribs.




Dr. P


All material published through this blog/website is for informational and entertainment purposes only. Readers are encouraged to confirm the information contained herein with other sources. Patients and consumers should review the information carefully with their professional health care provider. The information is not intended to replace medical advice offered by physicians. Dr. Parekh and Duke University will not be liable for any direct, indirect, consequential, special, exemplary, or other damages arising from the discussions in this blog.   For more information on the North Carolina Orthopaedic Clinic, go to: http://www.ncorthoclinic.com/  For more information on Duke Orthopaedics, go to: http://www.dukehealth.org/orthopaedics



Selene Parekh, M.D.

Selene Parekh, M.D. (also known as the “Fantasy Doctor”) is an orthopaedic surgeon and foremost expert on sports injuries who’s fast becoming the go-to expert for the multibillion dollar fantasy sports industry.

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