An injury to the cartilage connecting your ribs to your breastbone can be very painful. Although recovery times can vary, rib cartilage fractures typically take at least 6 weeks to heal.
The ribs in your ribcage are connected to your breastbone with a piece of cartilage. This cartilage gives your ribcage some flexibility, so it can expand when you breathe.
Injuries to the chest can damage that cartilage.
This article reviews what it feels like to fracture your rib cartilage, how it’s treated, and how long it takes to heal.
Your ribs are directly connected to the breastbone, or sternum, with costal cartilage.
Costal cartilage is a type of hyaline cartilage, or articular cartilage. It’s flexible but smooth, and it helps joints hold their shape so bones can move past each other.
If you fall or sustain a blow to the chest, you can fracture or dislocate the costal cartilage that attaches your ribs to your breastbone.
Symptoms of a rib cartilage fracture
Common symptoms of a rib cartilage fracture include:
- severe pain at the site of the fracture
- pain that gets worse when you take deep breaths
- pain with sneezing
- pain with coughing
- pain when you press or lie on the affected area
Diagnosing rib cartilage fractures
Is a fractured rib the same as fractured costal cartilage?
A broken or fractured rib is a break in one of the bones of your rib cage. A fracture in the cartilage that attaches your rib bones to your breast bone may also be called a fractured rib, even though a rib bone may not be broken.
Symptoms, treatment, and recovery time for fractured cartilage and fractured ribs are typically the same.
Although the healing time can vary, rib cartilage fractures can take at least 6 weeks — and sometimes longer — to heal. In some cases, rib cartilage injuries can even take as long as 6 months to heal.
Unlike with a fractured arm or leg, wearing a cast isn’t an option for a rib cartilage fracture (or even a rib bone fracture).
Treatment and recovery from a cartilage fracture typically involves:
- taking nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs as needed
- applying ice packs to the affected area
- wearing a brace
- taking a break from sports and other activities that could make the pain — or the injury itself — worse
- using caution when bending or twisting
Occasionally, you may need to have a plate surgically implanted in your chest to help with cartilage displacement or other concerns.
Adequate pain management during the healing process can make it easier to navigate recovery. Lidocaine patches and narcotic medications are sometimes used to help with pain from rib fractures. But experts caution that there are drawbacks, due to the addictive nature of narcotic pain medication.
Fractures of the rib cartilage can be caused by:
- Sports injuries: Sports that involve rigorous arm movements or forceful impacts to the chest, such as football, wrestling, or Jiu Jitsu, can cause rib cartilage injuries.
- Work injuries: Impact to the chest from heavy work equipment can cause a fracture or dislocation of the rib cartilage.
- Car accidents: High impact car injuries, also called blunt force trauma, can cause rib cartilage and rib bone fractures.
- Falls: Falls onto hard surfaces (for example from skiing, ice skating, or biking) can damage rib cartilage.
- Coughing: Although less common, chronic and untreated coughing
may injure the rib cartilage
If you’re in a car accident or are injured while playing sports, it’s possible to damage your ribcage, including a possible rib cartilage fracture.
It may take 6 weeks or so for the injury to heal and the pain to largely go away. In the meantime, talk with your doctor about the most appropriate ways to avoid worsening the pain that accompanies a rib fracture.