How to treat broken ribs

The treatment for a broken rib is simple: it can heal on its own with proper rest, but can take approximately six weeks to completely heal. In the meantime, you may experience a significant amount of pain, which can be remedied with pain relievers and by icing the affected area. In more serious cases, medical attention may be required.

Causes of Broken, Fractured, and Bruised Ribs

Rib injuries are most commonly caused by chest trauma, as a result of motor vehicle accidents, contact sports collisions, or falling. Ribs can also be bruised from severe coughing.

Fractured (or cracked) ribs are as painful as fully broken ribs, but they aren’t as dangerous. The jagged edge of a broken rib can damage major blood vessels or internal organs, if not properly treated.

How to treat broken ribs

How to Tell If Your Ribs Are Broken

If you’ve experienced trauma to your upper torso or chest area, pay attention to the pain you feel when you breathe in. A fractured, broken, or bruised rib can feel very painful when breathing in, which may result in taking shallow breaths.

When this happens, it’s important to work through this pain and continue taking deep breaths or breathing regularly. Continuous shallow breathing can result in the development of serious chest infections, such as pneumonia.

You may also notice swelling and tenderness around your chest or develop bruising on the skin of the area.

Treating Your Broken Ribs at Home

In most cases, ribs are excellent at healing themselves. However, during your recovery time, it’s important that you get adequate rest and tend to the pain to optimize healing. This includes:

  • Taking ibuprofen or paracetamol pain relievers regularly.
  • Using an ice pack to reduce the pain and swelling around your chest.
  • Resting when needed, which means taking time off work if your job involves physical labor.
  • Staying mobile when not resting, which can help your breathing and clear mucus from your lungs.
  • Holding a pillow to your chest when you need to cough.
  • Practicing breathing exercises to keep your lungs clear.

If you’re experiencing extreme pain or your ribs haven’t healed after six weeks, visit a medical professional. FastMed Urgent Care offers affordable and compassionate care, and our healthcare professionals strive to see each of our patients promptly, making your visit as fast as possible.

Find a FastMed near you to get the care you need for your injured ribs.

Last Updated: May 6, 2021 References Approved

This article was medically reviewed by Jonas DeMuro, MD. Dr. DeMuro is a board certified Pediatric Critical Care Surgeon in New York. He received his MD from Stony Brook University School of Medicine in 1996. He completed his fellowship in Surgical Critical Care at North Shore-Long Island Jewish Health System and was a previous American College of Surgeons (ACS) Fellow.

There are 9 references cited in this article, which can be found at the bottom of the page.

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Research suggests that cracked ribs may heal on their own in 1 to 2 months, but broken ribs with a jagged edge usually require immediate medical treatment. [1] X Trustworthy Source Mayo Clinic Educational website from one of the world’s leading hospitals Go to source Generally, broken ribs occur after a direct blow to your chest or torso after an accident, fall, or hard hit while playing a contact support. Experts say you can often manage a mild rib injury at home with rest, ice, and over-the-counter painkillers. [2] X Trustworthy Source National Health Service (UK) Public healthcare system of the UK Go to source However, visit your doctor to make sure your injury doesn’t require medical treatment.

In this Article

  • How Can I Tell If I Have a Broken Rib?
  • How Is It Diagnosed?
  • How Bad Can It Be?
  • What’s the Treatment?

Your ribs protect soft, fragile organs like your heart and lungs. Even though the rib bones are sturdy and are linked together by bands of muscles, it’s possible to break one or more ribs if you’re hit hard in the chest.

Broken ribs are painful and can hurt with every breath. And if they’re broken badly they can seriously damage internal organs.

There are several ways your ribs could be broken:

  • A traffic accident
  • Getting punched in your rib cage
  • Contact sports — football, hockey, or soccer, for example
  • Repeated movements, like swinging a golf club, rowing or swimming
  • Coughing very hard again and again
  • A fall onto a hard surface
  • Getting CPR

Some conditions can lead to a broken rib without your being hit very hard, including:

  • Osteoporosis (thin, brittle bones, usually linked to aging)
  • Cancerous lesions that weaken bones

How Can I Tell If I Have a Broken Rib?

Sharp chest pain happens with a broken rib. But it’s different from a heart attack:

  • If you touch the spot where your rib is broken, it will hurt more.
  • Your chest will hurt more when you take a deep breath.
  • The pain will get worse if you twist your body.
  • Coughing or laughing will cause pain. There may also be bruising, depending on the cause.

How Is It Diagnosed?

Your doctor will give you an exam. They’ll ask you what happened and will touch the painful area. They’ll want to listen to your lungs when you breathe and watch your rib cage as your chest goes up and down.

If your doctor suspects a rib fracture, they will want to get images of your chest. If the broken rib is caused by blunt trauma or a serious accident, they will want to make sure there’s is no other serious damage to internal organs.

Your doctor might order one or more of these:

  • X-ray. These catch 75% of all broken ribs. They can also show other problems, like a collapsed lung.
  • CT scan. This type of image shows fractures that don’t appear on X-rays. Your doctor will want you to get one if they think the X-ray missed something. It can also show damage to soft tissue and organs, like your lungs, liver, spleen or kidneys.
  • MRI. Like a CT scan, these images can show fractures that X-rays miss. They can pinpoint damage to soft tissue and organs.
  • Bone scan. If you have a stress fracture to a rib, or a history of prostate cancer, this may do a better job of showing where the damage is.

How Bad Can It Be?

Many times, it’s just a crack or hairline fracture, and the rib doesn’t move out of place. But if more ribs are broken or if the fracture is from a serious injury, more problems are possible.

A broken rib can have a jagged edge that juts into the chest cavity. There’s a chance that it can harm one of your organs:

  • If you break a rib toward the top of your rib cage, the sharp end of the bone could tear or puncture an important blood vessel.
  • If you break a rib in the middle of your rib cage, the sharp end of bone could puncture a lung.
  • If you break a rib toward the bottom of your rib cage, the sharp end of the bone could cause damage to your liver, kidney, or spleen.

What’s the Treatment?

Most broken ribs take about 6 weeks to heal. While you’re on the mend:

  • Take a break from sports to allow yourself to heal without hurting yourself again.
  • Put ice on the area to relieve pain.
  • Take pain medicine like acetaminophen or ibuprofen. If you need something stronger, your doctor may prescribe something for you.
  • Take deep breaths to avoid pneumonia. A lung infection is the most common thing you can get with rib fractures. Your doctor may give you a simple device to encourage you to breathe deeply.
  • Don’t wrap anything tightly around your ribs while they’re healing. You don’t want anything to limit your breathing.

Continued

If you have a more serious injury, you may need additional treatment or possibly surgery. For example, if your lung has been punctured by the sharp end of one of your ribs, you may need to have a procedure done to remove air or blood from inside your chest.

Some people whose ribs are badly injured might need to have them repaired with metal plates, but this is rare.

Sources

American Association for the Surgery of Trauma: “Rib fractures.”

Mayo Clinic: “Broken ribs — symptoms and causes,”  “Broken ribs — diagnosis,” “Broken ribs –treatment.”

Cleveland Clinic Journal of Medicine: “When and how to image a suspected broken rib.”

In this Article

  • Exercises to Help Broken Ribs Recovery
  • Safety Considerations

Your ribs are designed to protect your chest cavity from impact, but sometimes they can crack or fracture from blunt force. This direct impact might come from car accidents, contact sports, or slips and falls. A rib fracture might even come from repetitive chest trauma.В

In some people, especially in older populations, the ribs are more prone to fracture from severe coughing, cancerous lesions, osteoporosis, or certain cardiopulmonary (heart and lung) diseases.

Broken ribs can be extremely painful, but unlike other broken bones, the ribs cannot be encased in a cast and are generally left to heal naturally. Although your recovery could take six to eight weeks, you still need some type of physical activity to stay healthy while you heal.В

Exercises to Help Broken Ribs Recovery

Exercise for broken ribs recovery is a delicate balance. Your condition is quite painful, so you need to keep exercise gentle and allow for plenty of rest. On the other hand, you need to stay active over the next several weeks to reduce your risks for pneumonia and other chest infections, blood clots, or muscle weakness.

Continued

Gentle exercise for broken ribs can also help to clear your mind and prevent depression or anxiety from developing.

Breathing exercises are the main type of rehab, but chest-stretching exercises for broken ribs are effective as well. Each type should be done slowly and gently, with a gradual increase as you heal.

It’s important to remember that you shouldn’t start an exercise routine for broken ribs recovery until your doctor says it’s safe to proceed. For the initial post-injury recovery, focus on rest. You need to rest to best manage the pain and inflammation and let your ribs begin to mend.В

Deep Breathing

This is one of the first exercises you should do when you’re given the green light from your doctor. Deep breathing helps you to clear the mucus from your lungs to prevent chest infections or a collapsed lung.

Step 1: Sit upright in a chair and place your hands over your fractured rib area. You can also hold a pillow to your chest for support.

Continued

Step 2: Take a deep breath, and slowly and gently fill your lungs.В

Step 3: Hold your breath for about 10 seconds.

Step 4: Exhale slowly.

Step 5: Cough gently to help loosen mucus.

You can repeat this process five times, every two hours as comfort allows.

Diaphragmatic Breathing

Also known as belly breathing, diaphragmatic breathing helps to pass air to the furthest extent of your lungs and prevent trapped air from causing issues.

Step 1: Sit upright in a chair and place one hand on your upper chest and the other on your abdomen.

Step 2: Inhale slowly and focus on pushing your stomach into your hand. Try to make sure your upper hand remains motionless.В

Step 3: Tighten your stomach muscles as you exhale slowly.

You can repeat this exercise five to 10 times, for three to four sequences a day.В

Bucket Handle Breathing

Another breathing exercise for broken ribs, bucket handle breathing gently works the sides of your ribs to encourage motion for all angles.

Continued

Step 1: Sitting upright in a chair, place your hands on your sides. This is where your lower rib cage is located.

Step 2: Inhale slowly, breathing so your sides push into your hands.

Step 3: Hold for 10 seconds and exhale slowly.

Repeat this breathing exercise five to 10 times, for roughly three to four sessions each day.

Chest Stretches

As you heal your broken ribs, you can move into chest stretches that help to work the muscles across your chest.

Step 1: Sit upright in a chair and lift your arms, bending your elbows to 90 degrees. Alternately, you can try to raise your arms and interlock your fingers.

Step 2: Gently squeeze your shoulder blades toward one another.

Step 3: Hold for five to 10 seconds and release.

Step 4: Return your arms to their original position.

You can repeat this chest stretch five to 10 times, for two to three sessions a day.

Safety Considerations

Broken ribs don’t heal overnight, so it’s important to not overexert yourself. While you may feel some pain completing the exercises, you should stop if the pain increases. Contact your doctor immediately if you experience colored or bloody mucus, fever, or shortness of breath.В

Sources

American Council on Exercise: “5 Chest Stretch Variations.”

Cleveland Clinic: “Diaphragmatic Breathing.”

The Manual Touch Physical Therapy: “Physical Therapy for Rib Pain.”

Mayo Clinic: “Broken ribs.”

Mayo Clinic: “Helping elderly patients with rib fractures avoid serious respiratory complications.”

Mount Sinai: “Rib fracture – aftercare.”

Oxford Health NHS Foundation Trust: “Rib injury advice.”

Vancouver Coastal Health: “Managing a Rib Fracture: A Patient Guide.”

There is no specific treatment other than time and pain meds

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Miho J. Tanaka, MD, is a board-certified orthopedic surgeon who specializes in the treatment of sports medicine injuries.

Rib fractures are the most common type of injury caused by chest trauma.   Moreover, rib fractures are closely associated with overall health and risk of dying. In other words, a person who sustains a severe injury and has several broken ribs can be at a higher risk of death.  

How to treat broken ribs

Which Ribs Break Most Often

Typically, we all have 12 sets of ribs. The first three ribs are difficult to break and typically fracture only after high-energy trauma (e.g., a car crash).  

The other nine ribs are easier to break and account for more fractures, with the middle ribs most often broken. Some more common causes of rib fractures are:

  • Falls
  • Sports-related injuries (e.g., football or skiing)
  • Car accidents
  • Assault
  • Severe coughing  

Secondary Injuries Are Hard to Spot

Up to 25% of all rib fractures are detected not on X-ray but by physical examination.

Furthermore, damage to cartilage may be impossible to spot on an X-ray. Other diagnostic tools to visualize rib fractures, including fractures in cartilage, can include CT scans, MRI, and ultrasound.

Finally, damage to cartilage may be impossible to spot on an X-ray.   Ultrasound is emerging as a potential diagnostic tool to visualize rib fractures, including fractures in cartilage.

Link to More Serious Injuries

In and of itself, a rib fracture is painful but not life-threatening. However, rib fractures are often closely linked to other more serious injuries.  

With rib fractures, doctors are more suspicious of the following:  

  • Air and blood in the chest cavity
  • Vascular injury to the blood vessels in the chest
  • Intra-abdominal injury
  • Pulmonary contusion
  • Injury to the airway

Atelectasis (Collapsed Lung)

The pain of a rib fracture makes it harder to breathe and can contribute to atelectasis.

Atelectasis is defined as the partial or complete collapse of a lung when the airsacs do not expand with air. When you experience rib pain, it’s common to breathe lightly, thus not filling the lungs with air; this hypoventilation can result in atelectasis.

Treatment Options

If you or a loved one suffers from an injury that results in rib fracture outside of a hospital setting, there’s a good chance your physician may not be able to diagnose the fracture on X-ray.   Instead, pain over the affected ribs may be the only sign of injury.

Outpatient treatment of a rib fracture typically consists of the application of ice packs and prescription of pain medications as well as breathing exercises.  

The pain from rib fractures can be treated with a combination of:

  • Benzodiazepines
  • Opioids
  • NSAIDs (drugs like Advil)

Benzodiazepines and opioids have abuse potential. They should be used as prescribed and for no longer than the duration of the illness or injury.

People hospitalized with severe pain caused by rib fractures can receive a nerve block with a long-acting anesthetic like bupivacaine. Sometimes, an epidural can be given to help with the pain, especially in some cases of severe chest trauma.

It’s important to stay active while recovering from a rib fracture. Recovery can take up to six weeks or more.  

A Word From Verywell

Even though there’s no specific treatment for a rib fracture, if you suspect that you’ve sustained one, it’s a good idea to see a doctor.   They can help with the pain and examine you for other trauma or injury.

How to treat broken ribs

After a hit, fall or accident, you may end up with bruised, fractured or even broken ribs, being the worst case scenario. Broken ribs require special care to avoid possible breathing problems. However, there isn’t a way to accelerate the process of union of the broken parts, which is why rest and adequate care are fundamental. At OneHowTo.com we explain how to treat broken ribs as well as the symptoms that will warn you that your bones are broken.

Although it may seem very serious, the truth is that broken ribs are a minor injury that don’t present major problems unless your breathing capacity is affected. When it comes to severe trauma or injuries involving more than three broken ribs, it’s likely to require hospitalization and medical observation to guarantee that this condition is not a risk to your well-being of your organs.

Symptoms of broken ribs

Many times people are slow to detect a rib injury. Symptoms of broken or cracked ribs include the following:

  • Pain or discomfort when breathing deeply, when moving, touching the torso, or bending down.
  • When lying on the injured side, there’s likely to be discomfort.

If you have suffered a major injury or accident and suspect you have one or several broken ribs, go immediately to a hospital to have the appropriate tests done to confirm the diagnosis, as a medical opinion will be necessary to confirm if the fracture is a risk to lungs or any other organ.

Go to the doctor

Depending on the severity of the fracture, you will need to be kept under medical observation to ensure that your lungs and heart are not in danger. Complications in such cases, can result in shortness of breath in some patients. If this isn’t your case, then you can safely recover at home.

How to treat broken ribs

There’s no magic treatment, such as a cast, to heal broken ribs. The primary recommendation is rest and avoid all activities which involve sudden movements of the torso, rest is fundamental to heal.

You must avoid doing sport, dancing, running, getting up quickly or violently, turning the torso and doing any other activity that may cause pain and increase discomfort.

Doctors prescribe treatment for pain with painkillers to be taken according to the medication’s instructions. Another helpful alternative is to apply ice packs several times daily, to decrease inflammation and pain. This is especially effective when there’s been trauma to the area. Always consult your doctor before taking any medication for a prolonged period of time.

Probably, the area will be swollen due to the trauma that caused the pain, which is why discomfort will increase. To diminish the pain, we invite you to take a look at some alternatives for natural antiinflammatories that will help reduce swelling.

How to treat broken ribs

If you have a broken rib, don’t forget to follow your doctor’s advice to recover quickly and get back to your daily routine as soon as possible.

If you have regular bone fractures, you may want to have a look at the symptoms of osteoporosis to find out if you have this condition.

This article is merely informative, oneHOWTO does not have the authority to prescribe any medical treatments or create a diagnosis. We invite you to visit your doctor if you have any type of condition or pain.

If you want to read similar articles to How to Treat Broken Ribs, we recommend you visit our Diseases & secondary effects category.

Q: My husband slipped while out on his boat and cracked two ribs. He had a broken rib as a teenager (varsity football) and remembers having his chest wrapped, but that’s not happening this time. Why not? He’s in a lot of pain and it seems like wrapping could help.

A: Although your husband is facing pain and discomfort as a result of the fall he took, those two cracked ribs are proof that the structures of his chest did their intended jobs and helped him escape a graver injury. We’re specifically talking about the rib cage, which is an ingenious bit of architecture. It’s light, airy and flexible, supports the upper body and allows for a wide range of motion.

This includes the ability to take in and expel deep breaths. At the same time, the rib cage is highly effective at protecting important and vulnerable organs and anatomical structures, including the heart and the lungs. Rib injuries typically fall into three categories: bruised, cracked and broken. They can also include damage to the muscles and cartilage, which are the soft tissues holding the whole structure together.

Injuries to the ribs typically occur due to some type of blunt force to the chest, such as a car accident, a fall, being struck by an object or from a physical assault. It’s less common, but possible, to injure your ribs while coughing. Ribs are most likely to break at their weakest point, which is the outer curve. Severe injuries can lead to a punctured lung, ruptured aorta or lacerations to the spleen, liver or kidneys – each of which can be life-threatening.

Rib injuries can be extremely painful. Pain at the injury site is the most common symptom. Additional symptoms include pain when flexing the rib cage, either by breathing or moving; muscle spasms; difficulty breathing; audible crunching sounds that arise from the injury site; and a visible change to the appearance of the chest. A rib injury diagnosis often begins with the patient detailing the incident that led to the symptoms. This is followed by a physical examination, and sometimes by a chest X-ray. Unlike the bones of the legs and arms, the anatomical structure of the ribs means it’s not possible to immobilize them with a cast as they heal.

At one time, it was common to wrap the chest in an attempt to immobilize the damaged bones. However, this limits the person’s ability to breathe deeply and freely, which can increase the risk of developing pneumonia. Instead, treatment is now focused on pain relief, reducing inflammation and rest. This includes the use of ice packs and pain meds (both prescription and over-the-counter) , and the avoidance of activities that may stress the injured area. Depending on the extent of the injury, it can take from six weeks to several months for rib damage to heal. For many patients, once the initial pain is under control, limiting activities to prevent re-injury often proves to be the toughest part of the treatment.

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Overview

Blows or a fall to the chest is a primary cause of fractured or bruised ribs – severe coughing in rare cases can also be a cause. Bruised ribs are usually painful, but they should improve after three to six weeks. When you injure your ribs, it does not take away the ability to do your daily routine at home. Ribs heal naturally unlike other bones that when broken, they must be supported.

How to treat broken ribs Blows or a fall to the chest is a primary cause of fractured or bruised ribs

Bruised and broken ribs receive similar treatment; an X-ray is important to determine the nature and the state of the injury. A doctor should advise you if the condition does not improve, worsen or if you were involved in a fatal accident.

Injured Ribs

It’s painful breathing-in if you suffer from bruised or broken ribs, however, taking shallow breaths feels much better. However, breathing, as usual, is crucial to clear the lungs of mucus to prevent chest infections. You may also experience some tenderness and swelling in your chest accompanied by bruises on the skin.

Take Care of the Injury at Home

There is no harm when it comes to taking care of a broken or bruised rib at home. Have some pain relievers –because the injury will hurt every time you inhale – as the injury continues to heal. If you refrain from breathing or coughing, this only poses the risk of chest infections.

It is advisable to take some over-the-counter pain meds such as ibuprofen and paracetamol following the dosage recommendation as indicated on the packet. Note: children under the age of sixteen years should not take aspirin.
Pressing an ice pack or a bag of frozen peas wrapped in a towel will help to reduce pain and swelling.

Resting is essential; you should, therefore, take some time off work especially if you are involved in a job that demands much physical energy or if the pain is intolerable.
Move from one place to another during the resting period, moving your body especially the shoulders clears the mucus from the lungs and improves breathing.
Hold a pillow against your chest as you cough. Breathing exercises; to keep your lungs fully inflated, take ten slow but deep breaths every hour to achieve clear lungs.

When to Visit a Doctor

Consult a GP if the pain worsens or does not improve within few weeks. The GP may administer stronger painkillers or rather refer you to a hospital for further treatment.
The following are symptom that indicates serious problems hence need to seek immediate medical care:

  • A cough covered with blood, yellow or green mucus
  • Increased pain in your tummy, chest or shoulder
  • If you experience shortness of breath
  • Fever (temperature of 38C, 100.4F, and above

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