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 accident 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.
How is it diagnosed?
Your doctor will ask questions about your injury and do a physical exam. 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:
- Put ice on the injured area.
- Get extra rest.
- Take pain medicine such as ibuprofen or naproxen. Your doctor may prescribe a stronger pain medicine if over-the-counter medicines don't work
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.
Current as of: July 18, 2023
Author: Healthwise Staff
Clinical Review Board: All Healthwise education is reviewed by a team that includes physicians, nurses, advanced practitioners, registered dieticians, and other healthcare professionals.