Your ribcage consists of 12 pairs of ribs. In addition to protecting your heart and lungs, your ribs also support many of the muscles in your upper body. As a result, breaking a rib can make everyday activities very painful.
Given their position in the body, broken ribs are usually left to heal on their own. Read on to learn more about managing a broken rib and how long you can expect the recovery process to take.
One of the most persistent symptoms of a broken rib is chest pain when taking a breath. Inhaling deeply hurts even more. Laughing, coughing, or sneezing can also send sharp pains shooting from the site of the break.
Depending on the location of the fracture, bending over or twisting your upper body may also trigger sudden pain. Striking or pressing on the fracture will cause pain for at least several weeks.
You may also notice swelling and redness around the break. In some cases, you might also see bruising on the skin near the break.
As the protectors of your heart and lungs, your ribs are designed to withstand a lot. But sudden and severe blows to the chest and back can fracture them.
These can be the result of:
- contact sports, such as football or rugby
- car accidents
- hard falls
- domestic abuse or other forms of personal violence
Years of repetitive actions, such as a swinging a golf club, may also take a serious toll on your ribs and muscles. Trauma caused by repeating the same forceful motions can make you more susceptible to breaking a rib.
Those most at risk for broken ribs include:
- athletes who play contact sports or engage in frequent repetitive motions involving the chest or back
- people with osteoporosis, a disease that reduces bone density, leaving bones more vulnerable to fractures
- people with a rib that has a cancerous lesion, which can weaken the bone
Unlike a broken toe or arm, a broken rib can be hard to see. If you think you may have a broken rib, it’s best to visit a doctor so they can perform imaging tests to check for any broken bones.
Imaging tests a doctor might use include:
- Chest X-ray. An X-ray is helpful in revealing large breaks. But it may not give a clear view of small hairline fractures.
- Chest CT scan. A chest CT scan can sometimes pick up smaller fractures that an X-ray might miss.
- Bone scan. Bone scans involve injecting a small amount of radioactive dye into a vein. The dye, known as a tracer, can be detected with scanning equipment. The tracer tends to gather in areas where bone healing is going on, such as the site of a fracture. A bone scan can be especially helpful in detecting stress fractures caused by repetitive motion.
Depending on your symptoms, your healthcare provider may also use a chest MRI scan to check for any soft tissue or muscle injuries.
Treating broken ribs has changed in recent years. Doctors used to treat a fractured rib by wrapping the torso tightly to help keep the affected rib from moving. But this type of bandaging can restrict your breathing and occasionally lead to respiratory problems, including pneumonia.
Today, broken ribs are usually left to heal on their own without any supportive devices or bandages.
Depending on your pain level, your doctor might prescribe something you can take for pain relief. In the first few days after a rib is broken, an injectable form of anesthesia may help numb the nerves directly around the rib.
You can also apply an ice pack to the area to reduce pain and decrease swelling. Just make sure you wrap it in a thin towel first.
If possible, try to sleep in a more upright position for the first few nights after the injury.
Very serious rib fractures, such as those that make breathing difficult, may require surgery. In some cases, this may involve using plates and screws to stabilize the ribs while they heal.
While you certainly wouldn’t wish for a serious rib fracture, the benefits of having surgery with plates and screws typically include shorter healing time and less pain than leaving the ribs to heal on their own.
It takes about six weeks for broken ribs to heal on their own. During this time, you should avoid activities that could further injure your ribs. That means sports and heavy lifting are off the table. If anything causes you to feel pain around your ribs, stop immediately and hold off until you’re healed.
During healing, however, it is important to walk around and move your shoulders occasionally to prevent mucus from building up in your lungs. Though it may hurt, cough if you need to in order to clear your lungs. Holding a pillow against your chest when you cough may ease the pain somewhat.
Depending on which rib breaks and the severity of the injury, your heart and lungs may be at risk.
A serious break in one of the three top ribs could damage the aorta, the large artery that emerges from the top of the heart and delivers blood to much of your body. Other blood vessels in or near the heart may also be at risk.
Another potential complication of a broken rib is a punctured lung. A break in one of the middle ribs that causes a jagged bone edge to penetrate the lung could potentially cause the lung to collapse.
A break in one of the lower ribs can cut or puncture the liver, kidney, or spleen if the break is dramatic. These types of complications are more common if you have multiple broken ribs. Imaging tests, such as an MRI, can usually reveal injury to one of your internal organs or blood vessels.
To ensure any potential complications are caught early, make sure to tell your doctor about all of your symptoms, even if they don’t seem related to a broken rib. Also try to include as much detail as possible when describing the incident that caused the break.
Most broken ribs resolve within six weeks. You’ll need to take it easy during this time, but you should still be able to walk around and do your daily activities. If you find that the pain isn’t getting any better, see a doctor to rule out any additional injuries that could be causing your symptoms.