Rib Fracture

Definition

A rib fracture is a break in a rib bone. Bruised muscles and ligaments often happen with a rib fracture. With a rib fracture, the lungs and other organs can be injured. More than one rib fracture after a trauma can indicate serious internal injury.

Multiple Rib Fractures with Damage to Lung
broken ribs resized
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Causes

Rib fractures are caused by:

  • A direct blow to the rib
  • Crushing of the chest, such as in contact sports or a car accident
  • Severe coughing incidents that can occur with lung problems or at high altitude
  • Rib fractures in young children are often a sign of abuse

Risk Factors

Rib fractures are common in people 65 years and older. Other factors that may increase your chance of a rib fracture include:

  • Difficulty doing activities of daily living—generally with eldery people
  • Playing contact sports
  • Weak bones
  • Chronic cough
  • Extreme repetitive upper body activity, such as in:
    • Throwing
    • Basketball
    • Golf
    • Rowing
    • Weight lifting
  • Occupations involving a lot of overhead lifting
  • History of rib or chest fracture

Symptoms

Rib fracture may cause:

  • Pain in the ribs or upper chest area
  • Pain when breathing or coughing
  • Swelling and bruising in the fracture area
  • Severe local tenderness in the fracture area
  • Internal bleeding

Diagnosis

The doctor will ask about your symptoms and how the injury occurred. Your chest, lungs, and back will be examined.

Imaging tests can evaluate your chest and surrounding structures. These may include:

Treatment

Treatment may include:

Rest

Rest, without physical activity until the pain has gone away.

Protection

Your doctor may suggest wearing a chest binder around your ribs to protect them. The binder will also help you breathe properly. It is important to take deep breaths so that the lungs remain clear. Pneumonia can develop after rib fractures if you are not breathing deeply enough. If you play contact sports, you may need to wear a rib cage protector for 6-8 weeks when you return to playing.

Medication

Your doctor may recommend that you take over-the-counter medication to help reduce inflammation and pain, such as ibuprofen.

Physical Therapy

As your ribs heal, a physical therapist can teach you breathing exercises. The therapist can also help you maintain range of motion in arm and shoulder joints.

Intercostal Nerve Blocks

Special injections with local anesthetic can temporarily relieve pain.

Epidural Anesthesia

Sometimes, a temporary epidural catheter is used to place anesthetic near the spinal cord and nerves. This can help severe cases where the injury requires hospitalization.

Hospitalization

Hospitalization is usually only needed if there are complications such as damage to organs in the chest.

Prevention

Sometimes rib fractures cannot be prevented. To help reduce your chance of a rib fracture:

  • Wear protective equipment, such as rib pads, when playing contact sports.
  • Avoid over-training.
  • Learn the proper technique for exercise and sporting activities.
  • Maintain strong bones by:

Revisions

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This content is reviewed regularly and is updated when new and relevant evidence is made available. This information is neither intended nor implied to be a substitute for professional medical advice. Always seek the advice of your physician or other qualified health provider prior to starting any new treatment or with questions regarding a medical condition.

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