Rib Fracture: Symptoms, Causes, and Treatments for a Broken Rib

Medically Reviewed By Angelica Balingit, MD

Rib fractures may occur due to an injury or a severe cough. This can cause acute pain when you breathe or move. Following a treatment plan, which can include icing the injury site, taking medication, and more, can encourage healing and prevent complications. A rib fracture is a common injury Trusted Source PubMed Central Highly respected database from the National Institutes of Health Go to source that occurs when one of the bones of your rib cage cracks. As long as there are no injuries to your internal organs, many rib fractures heal independently without treatment. 

Read on to learn more about rib fractures. This article discusses their symptoms, causes, when to contact a doctor, and more. 

Overview

A person bending over in pain
Eloisa Ramos/Stocksy United

A rib fracture occurs when a significant force hits the ribs and causes a break. 

You have 12 pairs of ribs in your chest that protect your heart, lungs, and other organs. The top seven ribs attach to your spine and sternum. 

Ribs 8–10 attach to your spine and cartilage, extending from your seventh rib. Ribs 11 and 12 only attach to your spine. Doctors call these your floating ribs.

Ribs 1–3 are the most difficult Trusted Source PubMed Central Highly respected database from the National Institutes of Health Go to source ribs to break, while ribs 4–10 are the most likely to fracture. 

Learn about bruised ribs.

Symptoms

People with a rib fracture may find it difficult to take full breaths due to sharp pain during inhalation. There may also be some visible bruising on the chest wall.

Other symptoms may include pain from:

  • touching the area or feeling slight pressure on it
  • laughing, coughing, or sneezing
  • twisting your body

Because breathing can be painful, you may not inhale deeply and may become short of breath. This may make you feel dizzy or give you a headache.

Learn other reasons why you may have pain under your ribs.

Causes

Most rib fractures occur because of a blunt or penetrating injury to the chest. 

Older adults tend to be more likely Trusted Source PubMed Central Highly respected database from the National Institutes of Health Go to source to break a rib after falling. Sometimes a cracked rib occurs due to cancer metastasis to the rib cage bones, which makes bones fragile. 

Athletes may experience a fractured rib due to repetitive strain and microfractures to their ribs. Some people may even fracture their ribs due to a severe cough. 

Risk factors and prevention

Anyone can fracture a rib, but some people can have a higher likelihood of fracturing their ribs. People with a higher chance of rib fractures can include:

You can lower the chance of fracturing a rib by taking precautions during activities that can lead to blows or falls. Consider wearing a chest protector during high contact sports or construction jobs.

If you experience bone weakness, take extra care not to fall. If you have a tendency to lose your balance, talk with your doctor about possibly using a cane or walker to decrease your chance of falling.

Getting regular physical activity and eating a balanced diet, per your doctor’s instructions, can help keep your bones strong and lower your chance of a fracture.

When to see a doctor

Anytime you have significant chest pain, including after an injury to the chest, contact a doctor. 

Fractured ribs can have complications that require medical treatment, including: 

“Flail chest” is a serious complication Trusted Source PubMed Central Highly respected database from the National Institutes of Health Go to source of rib fractures. It happens when three or more ribs fracture in two or more places. This creates pieces of unattached rib bones that can shift and cause severe damage to internal organs. 

Get immediate medical attention if you think you may have a broken rib and begin to experience:

Diagnosis

An illustration showing fractures in ribs 4–6
If you have symptoms of a broken rib, contact a doctor for advice. They can check your rib health and check for other possible causes of your symptoms. Illustration by Wenzdai Figueroa.

If you believe you have a rib fracture, your doctor will want to perform a physical exam. They will also need to know about any recent injury to the chest you experienced. 

Your doctor will assess your breathing capacity, check for bruising, and will gently press on your ribs. 

If they feel more testing is necessary, your doctor may order a chest X-ray or CT scan to confirm the diagnosis. 

Treatment

Treatment for a rib fracture depends on the severity of the break and any complications. 

Simple fractures without complications require rest, ice, and pain management. Taking deep breaths throughout the day decreases your chance of complications such as pneumonia. 

For pain management, you can take over-the-counter nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs, such as ibuprofen (Advil) or naproxen (Aleve). If the pain is severe, your doctor may prescribe a pain reliever instead.

Severe fractures may require surgical stabilization and treatment for other complications. 

In the past, taping a fractured rib to provide more support may have been a component of treatment. However, experts no longer advise Trusted Source PubMed Central Highly respected database from the National Institutes of Health Go to source this, as it can impair your ability to breathe and may cause further complications. 

Read more about recovering from a broken rib.

FAQ

Angelica Balingit, M.D., reviewed the answers to these common questions about rib fractures.

Do rib fractures heal on their own?

Simple rib fractures may heal on their own. However, it is best to get a medical evaluation to check for complications. 

Is it OK to walk with a fractured rib?

Although your broken rib may hurt, it is important to stay as active as your doctor advises. If you rest too much, the chance of developing breathing difficulties increases.

Should I go to the ER for a broken rib?

If you experience a bad fall or car accident, go to the emergency room or call 911. If you think you may have a broken rib from a less urgent accident, injury, or condition, contact your doctor.

Summary

Rib fractures are a common injury that can lead to severe pain and difficulty breathing. If you experience a fall, a car accident, or receive a blow to your chest, you may have a cracked rib. 

If you have severe pain when you breathe, move, or apply slight pressure to your chest, contact a doctor. 

Though rib fractures generally heal on their own, there are guidelines to follow during recovery to lower the chance of developing complications from restricted breathing. Your doctor can also help you with a pain reliever while you recover.

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  1. He, Z., et al. (2019). The ideal methods for the management of rib fractures. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6545517/
  2. Kuo, K., et al. (2022). Rib fracture. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK541020/
  3. Perera, T. B., et al. (2022). Flail chest. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK534090/
  4. Prins, J. T. H., et al. (2019). Rib fractures after blunt thoracic trauma in patients with normal versus diminished bone mineral density: A retrospective cohort study. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC7010612/

Medical Reviewer: Angelica Balingit, MD
Last Review Date: 2023 Mar 6
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