A fracture or contusion of one or more ribs can occur as a result of a fall, a forceful blow to the chest, or, occasionally, a severe coughing fit.
It can be very painful, although the pain usually subsides over a period of three to six weeks.
Usually, if you have a rib injury, you can fix the problem without going to a doctor. Ribs cannot be splinted or supported like other bones, so you have to wait for the injury to heal spontaneously over time. Both in the case of a fracture and a strong contusion, the same procedure is carried out.
The doctor should be consulted if the complaints worsen or the condition does not improve, or if the damage has occurred as a result of a serious accident.
In the case of a fracture or contusion of one or more ribs, the pain is intense and you can only breathe superficially so as not to exacerbate it. However, it is important to try to breathe normally to clear the lungs of mucus and prevent chest infections.
When the rib is fractured or bruised, swelling and bruising may also form on the chest.
To determine (diagnose) a rib fracture, doctors will look for signs, such as bruises and deformities, and palpate the chest which can identify the presence of fractures.
Your doctor may recommend that you take an x-ray to check for:
- fractures in several places of the same rib
- compound or displaced fracture
- multiple fractured ribs
- concomitant injuries or a risk to the abdominal (in the case of a fracture of the last ribs) or thoracic organs, for example in the pleura (membrane that surrounds the lungs)
It may happen that the x-ray examination does not reveal the fracture and, in these cases, the doctor may ask to repeat the x-ray if the pain does not improve after a few days of rest.
In most cases, it is possible to treat yourself at home, relieving the pain that occurs every time you breathe or cough.
What needs to be done is:
- take pain relievers, for example those based on paracetamol and ibuprofen, after consulting your doctor and respecting the warnings on the package. Do not take aspirin under the age of 16
- apply an ice pack to the chest (a bag of frozen food wrapped in a cloth may also work) during the first few days, to reduce pain and swelling
- to rest, for example, avoiding going to work if your activity involves physical exertion and if the pain is severe
- keep moving during the rest period, walking and moving the shoulders while breathing, in order to clear the lungs of mucus
- press a pillow on the chest in case of cough
- do breathing exercises, taking 10 deep breaths every hour, in order to completely fill the lungs and keep them free of mucus
For the first few days, sleeping with the torso slightly raised can help.
We do not recommend the application of tight bandages that can prevent the chest from expanding and lying down or without moving for long periods. Furthermore, it is not recommended to drag or lift heavy objects when you feel that the pain has subsided so as not to prolong the time of recovery.It is also the case to quit smoking during the healing period.
When to see your doctor
Contact your family doctor if the pain does not subside within a few weeks. The doctor may indicate the intake of stronger painkillers and provide for hospitalization, if there is a need for further treatment or investigation.
You should contact your doctor immediately in the following cases:
- weak breathing
- chest pain increasing
- pain in the abdomen or shoulder
- blood in the sputum (coughing secretions)
- yellow or greenish mucous secretions with coughing
- temperature equal to or higher than 38 degrees
In these cases, in fact, a "chest infection" may have developed or the rib fracture may have damaged a lung, causing a pneumothorax, or injured other organs such as the liver or spleen.
If the rib injury occurs as a result of a serious accident, such as a car accident, you should immediately go to an emergency room.
NHS. Broken or bruised ribs (English)