What is a Broken Rib?

M.C. Huguelet

A broken rib is the partial or complete fracture of one of the bones of the rib cage. This usually painful injury may result from a direct blow to the area, or may be caused by a minor but prolonged form of distress to the ribs, such as frequent coughing fits. Minor rib breakages, although uncomfortable, are usually not serious, while severe breakages can cause damage to nearby organs. Generally, a broken rib will heal on its own in approximately six weeks. During that time, pain medication may be necessary to support normal lung function.

In rare cases, continuous coughing fits can cause a broken rib.
In rare cases, continuous coughing fits can cause a broken rib.

The most common cause of a broken rib is a direct blow to the area. This type of blow may result from such incidents as a fall, a car crash, or a collision while playing a contact sport. Less commonly, a minor but ongoing form of distress to the ribs, such as continuous coughing fits, can cause a breakage. These indirect breakages usually only occur in ribs that have been weakened by a condition like osteoporosis.

The rib cage.
The rib cage.

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As the breathing muscles press against the ribs, one of the most prevalent symptoms of a broken rib is shallow or painful breathing. Generally, the site of the breakage is also tender to the touch. If fragmented rib pieces have damaged a nearby body part, additional symptoms such as chest pain may also be present.

A chest X-ray can be used to detect a broken rib.
A chest X-ray can be used to detect a broken rib.

Those who suspect a broken rib should consult a physician immediately. Normally, imaging tests such as X-rays or computerized tomography (CT) scans are used to identify a breakage in the rib area. If a physician has identified a breakage, she will generally then determine whether it poses a risk to other body parts. While ribs that have been simply cracked usually present no serious risks, those that have been broken into two or more pieces can potentially pierce a nearby organ, causing significant damage. Thus, those with a severe breakage may be admitted to the hospital for observation.

Severely broken ribs can potentially injure the organs the rib cage normally protects.
Severely broken ribs can potentially injure the organs the rib cage normally protects.

Due to its location within the torso, a broken rib cannot be set in the way that many broken bones can. Nevertheless, a rib breakage will generally heal itself within approximately six weeks. During that time, it may be necessary to manage rib pain with over-the-counter or prescription medication. Using pain medication makes movement, sleeping, and other daily activities more comfortable. In addition, it helps to facilitate normal breathing, which is essential to the prevention of breathing-related conditions such as pneumonia and collapsed lung.

Broken ribs are commonly caused by car accidents, falls and sports-related collisions.
Broken ribs are commonly caused by car accidents, falls and sports-related collisions.

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Discussion Comments

Heavanet

I had a mild broken rib a few years ago, and the pain was moderate. Over-the-counter pain medications worked for me, because I can't take stronger prescriptions pain medications. Always check with your doctor first though, regardless of what you plan to do to treat the pain of a broken rib.

Ocelot60

My mom broke a rib from coughing. Her doctor told her that the best treatment for her broken rib was to get plenty of rest. He also said that her problem probably came from osteoporosis and not getting enough calcium.

Everyone, women especially, should eat at least 3 servings of dairy products each day. If this isn't possible, taking calcium supplements is a good idea to help build stronger bones and avoid these types of painful breaks.

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