Do I have a Broken Rib?

Your ribs protect soft, fragile organs like your heart and lungs. Even though the rib bones are sturdy and are linked together by bands of muscles, it’s possible to break one or more ribs if you’re hit hard in the chest.

Broken ribs are painful and can hurt with every breath. And if they’re broken badly they can seriously damage internal organs.

There are several ways your ribs could be broken:

  • A traffic accident
  • Getting punched in your rib cage
  • Contact sports -- football, hockey, or soccer, for example
  • Repeated movements, like swinging a golf club, rowing or swimming
  • Coughing very hard again and again
  • A fall onto a hard surface
  • Getting CPR

Some conditions can lead to a broken rib without your being hit very hard, including:

  • Osteoporosis (thin, brittle bones, usually linked to aging)
  • Cancerous lesions that weaken bones

How Can I Tell If I Have a Broken Rib?

Sharp chest pain happens with a broken rib. But it’s different from a heart attack:

  • If you touch the spot where your rib is broken, it will hurt more.
  • Your chest will hurt more when you take a deep breath.
  • The pain will get worse if you twist your body.
  • Coughing or laughing will cause pain. There may also be bruising, depending on the cause.

How Is It Diagnosed?

Your doctor will give you an exam. He’ll ask you what happened and will touch the painful area. He’ll want to listen to your lungs when you breathe and watch your rib cage as your chest goes up and down.

If your doctor suspects a rib fracture, he will want to get images of your chest. If the broken rib is caused by blunt trauma or a serious accident, he will want to make sure there’s is no other serious damage to internal organs.

Your doctor might order one or more of these:

  • X-ray. These catch 75% of all broken ribs. They can also show other problems, like a collapsed lung.
  • CT scan. This type of image shows fractures that don’t appear on X-rays. Your doctor will want you to get one if he thinks the X-ray missed something. It can also show damage to soft tissue and organs, like your lungs, liver, spleen or kidneys.
  • MRI. Like a CT scan, these images can show fractures that X-rays miss. They can pinpoint damage to soft tissue and organs.
  • Bone scan. If you have a stress fracture to a rib, or a history of prostate cancer, this may do a better job of showing where the damage is.

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How Bad Can It Be?

Many times, it’s just a crack or hairline fracture, and the rib doesn’t move out of place. But if more ribs are broken or if the fracture is from a serious injury, more problems are possible.

A broken rib can have a jagged edge that juts into the chest cavity. There’s a chance that it can harm one of your organs:

  • If you break a rib toward the top of your rib cage, the sharp end of the bone could tear or puncture an important blood vessel.
  • If you break a rib in the middle of your rib cage, the sharp end of bone could puncture a lung.
  • If you break a rib toward the bottom of your rib cage, the sharp end of the bone could cause damage to your liver, kidney, or spleen.

What's the Treatment?

Most broken ribs take about 6 weeks to heal. While you’re on the mend:

  • Take a break from sports to allow yourself to heal without hurting yourself again.
  • Put ice on the area to relieve pain.
  • Take pain medicine like acetaminophen or ibuprofen. If you need something stronger, your doctor may prescribe something for you.
  • Take deep breaths to avoid pneumonia. A lung infection is the most common thing you can get with rib fractures. Your doctor may give you a simple device to encourage you to breathe deeply.
  • Don’t wrap anything tightly around your ribs while they’re healing. You don’t want anything to limit your breathing.

If you have a more serious injury, you may need additional treatment or possibly surgery. For example, if your lung has been punctured by the sharp end of one of your ribs, you may need to have a procedure done to remove air or blood from inside your chest.

Some people whose ribs are badly injured might need to have them repaired with metal plates, but this is rare.

WebMD Medical Reference Reviewed by Sabrina Felson, MD on December 27, 2016

Sources

SOURCES:

American Association for the Surgery of Trauma: “Rib fractures.”

Mayo Clinic: “Broken ribs -- symptoms and causes,”  “Broken ribs -- diagnosis,” “Broken ribs --treatment.”

Cleveland Clinic Journal of Medicine: “When and how to image a suspected broken rib.”

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