A broken rib is a common injury that occurs when one of the bones in your rib cage breaks or cracks. The most common cause is chest trauma, such as from a fall, motor vehicle accident or impact during contact sports.
Many broken ribs are merely cracked. While still painful, cracked ribs aren't as potentially dangerous as ribs that have been broken into separate pieces. A jagged edge of broken bone can damage major blood vessels or internal organs, such as the lung.
In most cases, broken ribs usually heal on their own in one or two months. Adequate pain control is important so that you can continue to breathe deeply and avoid lung complications, such as pneumonia.
The pain associated with a broken rib usually occurs or worsens when you:
See your doctor if you have a very tender spot in your rib area that occurs after trauma or if you have difficulty breathing or pain with deep breathing.
Seek medical attention immediately if you feel pressure, fullness or a squeezing pain in the center of your chest that lasts for more than a few minutes or pain that extends beyond your chest to your shoulder or arm. These symptoms can indicate a heart attack.
Broken ribs are most commonly caused by direct impacts — such as those from motor vehicle accidents, falls, child abuse or contact sports. Ribs also can be fractured by repetitive trauma from sports like golf and rowing or from severe and prolonged coughing.
The following factors can increase your risk of breaking a rib:
A broken rib can injure blood vessels and internal organs. The risk increases with the number of broken ribs. Complications vary depending on which ribs break. Possible complications include:
The following measures may help you prevent a broken rib:
During the physical exam, your doctor will press gently on your ribs. He or she might also listen to your lungs and watch your rib cage move as you breathe.
Your doctor likely will order one or more of the following imaging tests:
Most broken ribs heal on their own within six weeks. Restricting activities and icing the area regularly can help with healing and pain relief.
It's important to obtain adequate pain relief — if it hurts to breathe deeply, you may develop pneumonia. If oral medications don't help enough, your doctor might suggest injections of long-lasting anesthesia around the nerves that supply the ribs.
Once your pain is under control, your doctor might prescribe breathing exercises to help you breathe more deeply because shallow breathing can put you at risk of developing pneumonia.
In the past, doctors would use compression wraps — elastic bandages that you can wrap around your chest — to help splint and immobilize the area. Compression wraps aren't recommended for broken ribs anymore because they can keep you from breathing deeply, which can increase the risk of pneumonia.
Because many broken ribs are caused by motor vehicle accidents, you may find out you have a broken rib in a hospital's emergency department. If you break a rib because of repetitive stress over time, you'll likely see your primary care provider.
Here's some information to help you get ready for your appointment
Before you see your primary care provider, make a list of:
Take a family member or friend along, if possible, to help you remember the information you're given.
For broken ribs, some basic questions to ask your doctor include:
Don't hesitate to ask other questions.
Your doctor may ask:
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