What is a fractured rib?
A rib fracture is a crack or break in one of the bones of the rib cage. A break in the thick tissue (cartilage) that connects the ribs to the breastbone may also be called a fractured rib, even if the bone itself is not broken.
The most common cause of a fractured rib is a direct blow to the chest, often from a car accident or a fall. Coughing hard can also fracture a rib. This is more likely to happen if you have a disease that has made your bones weak, such as osteoporosis or cancer.
What happens when you break a rib?
Your ribs have two main jobs:
- They protect the organs in your chest.
- They help you breathe by keeping space open inside your chest while the muscles you use to breathe squeeze in, or contract. This leaves plenty of space for your lungs to fill up with air.
The muscles used for breathing pull on the ribs, so breathing may be very painful when you have a fractured rib.
It is important to see a doctor after a rib injury. A blow that is hard enough to fracture a rib could also injure your lungs, spleen, blood vessels, or other parts of your body. A common injury when you have a fractured rib is a punctured or collapsed lung (pneumothorax).
Flail chest is a serious problem that happens when three or more ribs are broken in more than one place. If you have flail chest, the broken area can't hold its shape when you take a breath. This leaves less space in your chest for your lungs to open and air to flow in. It also makes it harder for the muscles to work well, so it's harder to take a breath.
What are the symptoms?
A fractured rib may cause:
- Mild to severe pain in the injured area.
- Pain when you breathe.
- Pain around the fracture when someone pushes on your breastbone.
If you can't breathe normally because of your injuries, you may:
- Feel short of breath.
- Feel anxious, restless, or scared.
- Have a headache.
- Feel dizzy, tired, or sleepy.
How is a fractured rib diagnosed?
Your doctor will ask questions about your injury and do a physical exam. The doctor may:
- Push on your chest to find out where you are hurt.
- Watch you breathe and listen to your lungs to make sure air is moving in and out normally.
- Listen to your heart.
- Check your head, neck, spine, and belly to make sure there are no other injuries.
You may need to have an X-ray or other imaging test if your doctor isn't sure about your symptoms. But rib fractures don't always show up on X-rays. So you may be treated as though you have a fractured rib even if an X-ray doesn't show any broken bones.
How is it treated?
Most fractured ribs are treated at home and will heal on their own over time. Home treatment will help you manage the pain while you heal. Pain relief can help you feel better and let you take deeper breaths.
A fractured rib usually takes at least 6 weeks to heal. To help manage the pain while the fracture heals:
- Put ice on the injured area.
- Get extra rest.
- Take pain medicine such as aspirin or ibuprofen. Your doctor may prescribe a stronger pain medicine if over-the-counter medicines don't work.
If you have fractured your ribs and you have not injured your neck or back, it is a good idea to lie on your injured side. This may seem odd at first, but it will let you take deeper breaths.
In the past, it was common to tape or tightly wrap the injured rib area. But you should not do this, even if it eases your pain. It can keep you from taking deep breaths, and it could cause parts of your lung to collapse or could increase your risk for pneumonia.