Bruised Rib: What to Know and What to Do

Medically Reviewed By Angela M. Bell, MD, FACP

A bruised rib can result from any injury to the area around the ribs. Due to the risk of other injury to vital organs, it is important to get treatment for a rib bruise. The symptoms of a bruised rib and a rib fracture can be similar, and both typically rely on home treatment and rest to allow the area to heal.

However, the injury that causes a bruised rib may also result in other injuries to the rib cage or the vital organs within it. Contact your doctor about any symptoms of a rib bruise or symptoms that develop during your injury recovery.

This article will discuss possible causes of a bruised rib, as well as symptoms, treatments, and potential complications.

What is a bruised rib?

Cropped image of young kids playing basketball
Valentina Barreto/Stocksy United

A bruised rib is an injury to the soft tissue or muscle that surrounds a rib bone. Blood vessels in this tissue rupture and leak blood, leading to bruising. The medical name for a bruise is a contusion.

You can develop bruised ribs anywhere along the rib cage on the front or back of the body, including getting a bruised rib under the breast or along the sternum, also called the breastbone.

What are the signs of bruised ribs?

Any injury to the ribs, including rib bruises, can cause symptoms including:

  • soreness in the area of the injury
  • pain when you inhale, cough, laugh, or sneeze
  • muscle spasms around your rib cage
  • a bruise(s) on the skin around the affected area, in some cases

Bruised vs. broken rib

The symptoms of a rib fracture are typically similar to those of a bruised rib but may be more severe and last longer.

The treatments for a bruised rib and a broken rib are generally the same. Because it is not possible to apply a cast to a rib bone, treatment focuses on rest to allow the fracture to heal.

Compared with a bruised rib, a broken rib has a higher risk of complications. Contact your doctor if you have been recovering from a rib fracture for more than a few weeks and experience symptoms including:

  • severe pain that does not go away or gets worse
  • extreme tenderness
  • a sound of crunching or grinding
  • difficulty breathing

The force of the injury that causes a rib fracture can also result in damage to internal organs, which is why it is important to tell your doctor right away about any new or worsening symptoms.

Learn more about symptoms of a rib fracture.

What are treatments for bruised ribs?

Treatment for bruised ribs typically involves home care and rest to allow the area to heal on its own.

However, it is important to get an accurate diagnosis from a doctor or another healthcare professional before beginning home treatment. Self-diagnosing symptoms could prevent you from getting the treatment you need and lead to potential complications.

Working with your doctor, you can follow home treatment steps for bruised ribs, including the following:

  • If possible, take time off work and rest, particularly if you have a physically demanding job.
  • Take frequent breaks and rest your body as often as possible.
  • Use over-the-counter (OTC) pain relievers, such as acetaminophen (Tylenol) or ibuprofen (Advil) to manage pain. If you are pregnant, talk with your doctor about safe OTC pain medications.
  • In the first days after the injury, apply cold packs to the area to help reduce swelling.
  • After the first 2 days, apply heat to help bruises heal.
  • Try to breathe as typically as possible, including taking deep breaths every hour to help keep lungs clear
  • If you have to cough, hold a pillow against your chest to limit movement.
  • Avoid lying down. If possible, sleep upright for the first few days after your injury.

Learn safe exercises to do while recovering from bruised ribs.

How long do bruised ribs take to heal?

Pain from a bruised rib typically improves within a few days. It may take 3–6 weeks for a bruised rib to heal completely.

When to contact your doctor

Contact your doctor or another health professional about your bruised rib treatment in situations including:

  • ineffectiveness of OTC pain relievers in managing pain
  • fever of 100.4°F (38°C) or higher
  • new or worsening cough
  • difficulty breathing

If necessary, your doctor may need to prescribe stronger pain relief medication. Your physician will work with you to determine the right pain medication for your bruised ribs and discuss potential benefits and risks.

When to get emergency care

  • sudden worsening pain or shortness of breath
  • pain radiating to your shoulder or abdomen
  • cough containing blood

What causes bruised ribs?

A direct hit to the rib cage is the most common cause of injuries to the ribs, including rib bruising. This can include a nonpenetrating or penetrating impact to a specific area.

Situations that can cause bruised ribs include:

  • sports injuries
  • falls
  • car accidents
  • crush injuries, such as from a heavy object falling onto your chest
  • assault
  • excessive or forceful coughing

Because any of these situations could cause additional injuries, including internal damage that may not be immediately apparent, it is important to get prompt or emergency care.

Learn other possible causes of rib cage pain.

Other frequently asked questions

These are some questions people often ask about bruised ribs. Angela M. Bell, M.D., FACP, has reviewed the answers.

Does a bruised rib heal itself?

Generally, a bruised rib will heal on its own with rest and pain relievers. However, the force that causes the bruising may also result in other injuries, including internal damage to vital organs inside the rib cage. Always contact a doctor or health professional for symptoms of a bruised rib.

How should you sleep with bruised ribs?

Doctors recommend avoiding lying down right after bruising a rib. If possible, sleep sitting up for the first few days after your injury.

Is heat good for bruised ribs?

Initially, applying cold packs can help reduce swelling from a bruised rib. After the first 2 days, it can help to use heat packs or a hot bath to help bruising heal more quickly.

Summary

A bruised rib can occur due to injury to any area of the rib cage. Damage to soft tissue around rib bones can rupture blood vessels and cause pooling, resulting in a bruise.

Symptoms of a rib bruise can include soreness in the area of the injury, pain when inhaling or coughing, and muscle spasms around the rib cage. Severe pain or difficulty breathing may indicate a rib fracture or another serious injury.

Treatment for a bruised rib typically includes rest and OTC pain relievers. Pain should typically improve within a few days.

Contact your doctor for any symptoms of a bruised rib because the injury that causes a bruised rib may lead to additional injuries. If symptoms suddenly worsen, get urgent or emergency care.

Was this helpful?
182
Medical Reviewer: Angela M. Bell, MD, FACP
Last Review Date: 2022 Oct 11
View All Bones, Joints and Muscles Articles
THIS TOOL DOES NOT PROVIDE MEDICAL ADVICE. It is intended for informational purposes only. It is not a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. Never ignore professional medical advice in seeking treatment because of something you have read on the site. If you think you may have a medical emergency, immediately call your doctor or dial 911.