What is a rib fracture?
A rib fracture is a break in one of the bones that compose the rib cage. Ribs may be fully broken or partially broken (cracked). When a rib is completely broken, the edges of the bones pose a danger of damaging or tearing internal organs, such as the lungs, liver or spleen, as well as blood vessels.
Bone fractures, including fractures of the rib, are most commonly caused by trauma, such as fall or a motor vehicle accident. Certain medical conditions, such as osteoporosis, weaken the bones and increase the risk of a rib fracture. Cancer that has spread to the bones of the rib cage can also predispose to the development of a rib fracture. In some cases of weakened bones, even violent coughing may be sufficient to cause a rib fracture.
Anyone can sustain a rib fracture or other type of bone fracture. However, older people with more brittle bone structure are at a higher risk of suffering fractures from trauma that would not result in fracture in a younger person.
Rib fractures can pose serious health risks, including punctures of the lungs or other internal organs or the rupture of major arteries. Seek immediate medical care (call 911) if you believe you may have a rib fracture.
What are the symptoms of a rib fracture?
Both complete and incomplete rib fractures will exhibit similar symptoms, although symptoms are likely to be exacerbated with a complete fracture.
Common symptoms of rib fracture
If you have experienced a rib fracture, you may have symptoms that include:
Serious symptoms that might indicate a life-threatening condition
In some cases, rib fractures can be life threatening, as they may damage internal organs or blood supply. Seek immediate medical care (call 911) if you, or someone you are with, sustain a fracture that breaks the skin (compound fracture), or if you experience difficulty breathing.
What causes a rib fracture?
Rib fractures are typically caused by trauma to the chest. Common causes of such trauma include falls, motor vehicle accidents, or direct blows to the chest, such as you might sustain in a sporting event. It is also possible to develop hairline fractures when constant stress is placed on the bone, such as from continuous or violent coughing.
A number of factors increase the risk of developing rib fractures. Not all people with risk factors will sustain rib fractures. These risk factors include:
- Advanced age
- Cancer that has spread to a rib
- Involvement in contact sports
- Occupational activities that increase your risk if rib fracture (slips, falls, blunt trauma)
- Osteoporosis (thinning and weakening of the bones)
Reducing your risk of rib fractures
Because rib fractures are most commonly caused by trauma, certain precautionary steps may be taken to reduce your risk of developing rib fractures including:
- Avoiding situations that may lead to falls, such as standing on the top of a ladder
- Consuming adequate calcium and Vitamin D to reduce the risk of osteoporosis
- Following your treatment plan if you have been diagnosed with osteoporosis
- Using protective equipment during contact sports
How is a rib fracture treated?
Treatment for rib fractures will depend on the severity of the fracture. Many rib fractures are incomplete fractures that will heal on their own over time. Pain relieving medications may be necessary to manage your symptoms. While a broken arm can be immobilized in a cast and sling, there is no effective means of immobilizing a fractured rib. If you have an incomplete rib fracture your doctor will most likely suggest a regimen of pain relief medications and limited movement to allow the rib to heal on its own. It is important that you do not tightly tape or wrap the rib cage area, since this can lead to an inability to breathe in deeply, increasing your risk of pneumonia or other problems.
Surgical intervention may be needed for severe rib fractures or fractures that damage internal organs.
Some rib fractures can cause serious or life-threatening complications. To minimize your risk of complications it is important to follow the treatment plan you and your health care provider design specifically for you. Complications of complete rib fractures include:
- Damage to internal organs
- Disruption of blood supply
- Punctured lung
- Sepsis (life-threatening bacterial blood infection)
- Serious infections