Rib Fracture

ExitCare ImageA rib fracture is a break or crack in one of the bones of the ribs. The ribs are a group of long, curved bones that wrap around your chest and attach to your spine. They protect your lungs and other organs in the chest cavity. A broken or cracked rib is often painful, but most do not cause other problems. Most rib fractures heal on their own over time. However, rib fractures can be more serious if multiple ribs are broken or if broken ribs move out of place and push against other structures.

CAUSES

  • A direct blow to the chest. For example, this could happen during contact sports, a car accident, or a fall against a hard object.

  • Repetitive movements with high force, such as pitching a baseball or having severe coughing spells.

SYMPTOMS

  • Pain when you breathe in or cough.

  • Pain when someone presses on the injured area.

DIAGNOSIS

Your caregiver will perform a physical exam. Various imaging tests may be ordered to confirm the diagnosis and to look for related injuries. These tests may include a chest X-ray, computed tomography (CT), magnetic resonance imaging (MRI), or a bone scan.

TREATMENT

Rib fractures usually heal on their own in 1–3 months. The longer healing period is often associated with a continued cough or other aggravating activities. During the healing period, pain control is very important. Medication is usually given to control pain. Hospitalization or surgery may be needed for more severe injuries, such as those in which multiple ribs are broken or the ribs have moved out of place.

HOME CARE INSTRUCTIONS

  • Avoid strenuous activity and any activities or movements that cause pain. Be careful during activities and avoid bumping the injured rib.

  • Gradually increase activity as directed by your caregiver.

  • Only take over-the-counter or prescription medications as directed by your caregiver. Do not take other medications without asking your caregiver first.

  • Apply ice to the injured area for the first 1–2 days after you have been treated or as directed by your caregiver. Applying ice helps to reduce inflammation and pain.

  • Put ice in a plastic bag.

  • Place a towel between your skin and the bag.  

  • Leave the ice on for 15–20 minutes at a time, every 2 hours while you are awake.

  • Perform deep breathing as directed by your caregiver. This will help prevent pneumonia, which is a common complication of a broken rib. Your caregiver may instruct you to:

  • Take deep breaths several times a day.

  • Try to cough several times a day, holding a pillow against the injured area.

  • Use a device called an incentive spirometer to practice deep breathing several times a day.

  • Drink enough fluids to keep your urine clear or pale yellow. This will help you avoid constipation.  

  • Do not wear a rib belt or binder. These restrict breathing, which can lead to pneumonia.  

SEEK IMMEDIATE MEDICAL CARE IF:

  • You have a fever.  

  • You have difficulty breathing or shortness of breath.  

  • You develop a continual cough, or you cough up thick or bloody sputum.

  • You feel sick to your stomach (nausea), throw up (vomit), or have abdominal pain.  

  • You have worsening pain not controlled with medications.  

MAKE SURE YOU:

  • Understand these instructions.

  • Will watch your condition.

  • Will get help right away if you are not doing well or get worse.