What is a broken rib?
A broken rib (also called a 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 broken rib, even if the bone itself is not broken.
The most common cause of a broken rib is a direct blow to the chest, often from a car crash or a fall. Coughing hard can also break 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 are the symptoms?
A broken rib may cause pain in the injured area. It can make it hard to take a breath or breathe deeply. Or it may cause pain around your breastbone. If you can't breathe normally you may feel short of breath, anxious, restless, or scared. You also may have a headache.
What could happen when you break a rib?
Your ribs have two main jobs:
- They help 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.
How is it diagnosed?
Your doctor will ask questions about your injury and do a physical examination. 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 broken ribs don't always show up on X-rays. So you may be treated as though you have a broken rib even if an X-ray doesn't show any broken bones.
How is a broken rib treated?
Most broken 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 broken rib usually takes at least 6 weeks to heal. To help manage the pain while the fracture heals:
While you are healing, it is important to cough or take the deepest breath you can at least once an hour. This may help prevent pneumonia or a partial collapse of the lung tissue.
If you have broken 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.