Unlike other types of bone fractures, broken ribs aren’t treatable with a cast or splint. They usually are treated without surgery but on occasion surgery is required.
For a long time, broken ribs were treated by wrapping the torso tightly. But experts have since found that this isn’t very helpful. Plus, it made it hard to breathe deeply, which is important for reducing your risk of pneumonia or other respiratory complications.
Today, treatment for broken ribs typically focuses on a combination of rest, pain management, and breathing exercises.
Indications for surgical intervention include a flail chest (three or more adjacent ribs broken in multiple places) or multiple rib fractures that are causing breathing problems.
If you’ve broken a rib (or several), one of the best things you can do is simply rest. This will not only reduce some of the pain but also help your body navigate the healing process.
Still, you need some level of physical activity for the rest of your body and overall health. You’ll be able to get up and walk around pretty early in the recovery process, but it’s best to wait until your healthcare provider gives you the green light.
Once you get the go-ahead to start walking around, you can also return to other low-impact activities, including:
- sexual activity
- light housework
- simple errands
- working, as long as it doesn’t involve heavy lifting or physical exertion
Things to avoid
As you recover, there are certain things you shouldn’t do, including:
- lifting anything over 10 pounds
- playing contact sports
- doing any activities that require pushing, pulling, or stretching, including crunches and pull-ups
- engaging in high-impact activities, such as running, horseback riding, or ATV riding
- playing golf; even that gentle swinging can cause excruciating pain if you have a broken rib
The main symptom of broken ribs is ongoing pain, so controlling that pain and discomfort is essential to a better recovery. Reducing your pain, even a little, can allow you to breathe normally and cough without too much discomfort.
Initially, you’ll probably be prescribed prescription pain medication to help you get though the first few days. Common examples include oxycodone (Oxycontin) and hydrocodone (Vicodin).
Oxycodone and hydrocodone are strong opioids that carry a high risk of addiction. Only take these medications as directed.
Avoid driving while under the influence of opioids. Also avoid drinking alcohol.
Talk to your doctor about medicines you’re already taking if they prescribe opioids to you for pain. Some medications, such as sleep aids and anti-anxiety medications, should not be taken simultaneously with opioids.
Over-the-counter (OTC) medication
After you get past the initial pain, you’ll want to start swapping prescription medication for an OTC option. Nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs, such as ibuprofen (Advil) or naproxen (Aleve), should do the trick.
You can also holding a covered icepack against the area for 20 minutes at a time three times a day for extra relief.
Pain that lingers or gets worse for more than three weeks or so should be reported to your doctor.
Taking big, deep breaths causes your lungs, which are protected by your ribcage, to expand. Usually, this isn’t a problem. But if you have a broken rib, taking a deep breath can be painful.
Taking only shallow breathes can increase your risk of developing pneumonia and other respiratory illnesses. This is why you’ll likely be sent home with some breathing exercises to do as you recover.
You may even be advised to work with a respiratory therapist. Part of your therapy may include the use of a spirometer, which is a device that measures the volume of air you breathe in and out. This will give you a better idea of how it should feel to take a full, deep breath.
To help with the pain, consider taking your pain medication just before you start your breathing exercises. Holding a pillow gently, but firmly, against your chest may lessen the pain. Work on just taking slow, steady, deep breaths.
Here’s a quick breathing exercise to add to your recovery plan:
- Start with three seconds of deep breathing.
- Switch to three seconds of relaxed breathing.
- Do a few “huffs” or short breaths with some light coughs.
- Finish off with another three seconds of relaxed breathing.
- Repeat this cycle several times.
Each rib injury and recovery period is unique, but in general, broken ribs take about six weeks to heal. That time frame could be shorter if the fracture is mild.
If internal organs, such as your lungs, were also injured, a full recovery could take longer. This is especially true if you needed surgery to repair the damage.
Occasionally, rib injuries can cause damage to your lungs. Usually, any lung damage will be diagnosed during your initial exam. But sometimes, lung injuries aren’t noticeable right away.
As you recover, you’ll want to keep an eye out for any signs of a punctured lung or pneumonia.
Seek immediate medical care if you experience:
- difficulty catching your breath
- coughing up mucus more often or coughing up thicker mucus
- coughing up blood
- blue lips
- fever of 102ºF (38.8°C) or higher
Most cases of broken ribs resolve without surgery. But you’ll need to make sure you give your body plenty of rest while keeping your lungs in good working order. You should be back to most of your usual activities in a month or two.
If you find that the pain, even with prescription medication, is too much, don’t hesitate to talk with your doctor about your options. A nerve block for pain may be helpful, especially at first.