When you crack a rib, it changes your life while it heals. Although rib fractures usually heal by themselves within a few weeks, we're here if you need additional assistance. We want to ensure you get you back to your daily activities, like walking, and making each moment matter.
Learn about causes of rib fractures, what the symptoms are and your treatment options.
What is a rib fracture
A “fracture” is another word for a broken or cracked bone. Depending on what caused your injury, you may have one or more broken ribs. These can occur on one or both sides of your chest.
Injuries significant enough to break your ribs can also cause damage to organs in the chest or belly. These organs can include the lung, liver or spleen.
Some rib fractures, called “stress fractures,” do not happen after an injury. Instead, you get them when you have a severe cough or a repetitive motion, like swinging a golf club.
Symptoms of a rib fracture
A fractured rib may cause:
- Mild to severe pain in the area of injury. The most common symptom of a rib fracture is pain. Some people also have bruising over the injured area as well.
- Pain when you breathe or cough
- Feeling short of breath or unable to catch your breath
- A stress fracture also causes pain, but the pain usually starts slowly and gets worse over time.
Rib fractures can cause other significant injuries to internal organs (lungs, liver, spleen). You should seek immediate medical attention if you have any of these symptoms:
- Moderate to severe pain
- Difficulty breathing or feeling short of breath
- Racing heart rate
- Feeling dizzy or lightheaded
- Abdominal pain
- Testing for a rib fracture
Your doctor or nurse will ask about your symptoms and do an exam. He or she might order a chest x-ray. Sometimes rib fractures are not visible on x-ray so you will need other imaging tests. Often the imaging test is a CT scan which looks for other injuries or more subtle rib fractures.
Treatment for rib fractures
Treatment depends on how many ribs you broke and your other injuries. Your doctor will also take into account your health and any other medical conditions. People with two or more broken ribs often need treatment offered in a hospital setting.
You should take adequate pain medications to keep you as comfortable as possible. This is is very important in preventing pneumonia. Because ribs help you expand your chest to breathe, when you have a break, it is very painful to breath or cough. Not fully inflating your lungs allows the far ends of the lungs to collapse. This makes you more susceptible to developing pneumonia.
Many people that have rib fractures also have bruising of the lung on the inside. This also puts you at even higher risk of developing pneumonia as the lung itself is injured.
It is very important that you take the pain medications as recommended by your doctor. Your pain level should be low enough that you are able to cough. Having good pain control is critical to your recovery and in preventing pneumonia.
Your doctor will also recommend a treatment to help prevent your small airways from closing off. This treatment, called “incentive spirometry,” involves breathing deeply into a hand-held device many times each day. You will see a Respiratory Therapist to help you with these exercises.
It is also very important that you stay active. Activity, like walking, although painful, is very important to keep good lung function. It also works to prevent pneumonia. Once you go home from the hospital, you should walk around your house several times per day. Increase your activity as you can tolerate.
Most of the time you will treat your rib fracture at home. The bone or cartilidge usually heals in about four weeks. Pain control through pain medication is key so you breath and cough properly. The most common complication for a rib fracture is pneumonia.
To treat your pain, your doctor can use:
- Strong pain medicines, such as narcotics (Percocet, Vicodin, Norco, etc.)
- Nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) such as ibuprofen (Advil®, Motrin®) or naproxen (Aleve®, Naprosyn®)
Treatment for a stress fracture involves avoiding the activity that caused your stress fracture for 4 to 6 weeks. Then you can slowly restart that activity.
Recovery from rib fractures
Rib fractures can take weeks to months to heal, depending on how mild or serious the fracture is. In general, any broken bone will take 6-8 weeks to heal. The worst pain is usually the first 1-2 weeks and gets gradually better after that.
Healing time also depends on the person. Healthy children usually heal quickly. Older adults or adults with other medical problems, like osteoporosis, can take longer.
It’s important to follow all your doctor’s instructions while your fracture is healing. He or she will recommend that you eat a healthy diet that includes calcium, vitamin D and protein. He or she will also recommend that you:
- Avoid doing certain activities that make the pain worse
- Avoid smoking. A fracture can take longer to heal if you smoke
When should I call my doctor or nurse?
After treatment, your doctor or nurse will tell you when to call him or her. In general, you should call him or her if:
- you get a fever
- you have trouble breathing
- you have a cough that is getting worse
- you have severe pain that is not controlled with recommended pain medications
- your skin looks more pale than usual, or you feel very weak
Watch for changes in your health and call your provider with concerns.