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What are the Ribs?

By Mandi Rogier
Updated: Jan 21, 2024

The ribs are an essential part of the human skeleton that surround the chest cavity, protecting many vital organs. Humans have 12 pairs of ribs that make up the rib cage. The rib cage belongs to the respiratory system and surrounds the lungs.

As with most bones, the rib cage plays an important part in giving the human body its shape. The ribs support the chest cavity and give it shape. The rib cage holds the pectoral girdle up, supporting the shoulders. These bones are an integral piece of a human’s core shape.

Despite the biblical story of Adam’s missing rib, in most cases, both men and women have the same number of ribs. Occasionally, an individual will have one more cervical rib than normal. This occurs in less than one percent of individuals, though this occurs more often in women than in men.

The first 14 ribs — seven on each side — in the rib cage are known as true ribs. These bones are attached to the breastbone at one end and the backbone, or spine, at the other end.

The five pairs of ribs that follow are referred to as false ribs. These are shorter than the bones above. The top three pairs of false ribs are attached to the spine in the same manner as the previous bones, but they are not attached to the breastbone. Instead, these false ribs are connected to the lowest of the seven true ribs.

The final two pairs in the rib cage are termed floating ribs. Though they connect to the spine in the back of the body, they do not connect to any other part of the rib cage in the front. While all previous pairs of bones have both a head to attach to the vertebra and a tubercle on the opposite end of the rib, the floating ribs have only the head.

The lungs take up the majority of the space within the rib cage. As one breathes, the ribs move up and down. Inhaling causes the ribcage to expand upward and outward. As one exhales, the ribcage contracts and moves downward.

The rib cage acts as a protective barrier around the heart and lungs as well as areas of the stomach, kidneys, and spleen. While this cage serves to keep them safe, it can also prove dangerous. The rib bones are delicate and can be broken easily. A broken rib may puncture nearby organs if it shifts inward.

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Discussion Comments
By Comparables — On Oct 06, 2011

@Amphibious54- If you think you have a bruised or fractured rib, you should go see a doctor to at least have yourself checked out for other injuries. A doctor cannot do much for a cracked or bruised rib, so if your symptoms are mild you can probably wait until you can make an appointment.

If you want to determine what rib may be injured, try pressing on your sternum (your breastbone). The injury will be wherever you feel the pain. Sharp pain is indicative of a fracture. Shortness of breath and trouble breathing can be a sign of a punctured lung. If you have any of these more severe symptoms, you should go to the hospital to be sure you do not have internal bleeding or a punctured spleen as well.

If your only symptoms are pain when breathing deep and tenderness around the area, rest up and take a few OTC pain killers. Whatever you do, do not wrap your lungs. This was common practice a few decades ago, but it can lead to a collapsed lung or pneumonia. As much as it may hurt, you want your lungs to be able to expand as far as possible.

By Amphibious54 — On Oct 06, 2011

How do you treat rib injuries? I think I might have bruised a rib or something because I am having trouble breathing deep and my ribs hurt when I am lying down. I am trying to decide if my symptoms are enough to make me go to the hospital or wait until I can schedule an appointment with my doctor. My insurance is not that great, so I would prefer to schedule an appointment.

What symptoms should I look for? How can I ease the pain? How can I tell which rib might be injured? Should I wrap my rib cage? The pain dulls when I put pressure on the sides of my rib cage, so I was thinking I could ace bandage the ribs to help hold me over. Thanks to anyone who responds.

By aplenty — On Oct 05, 2011

@Glasshouse- I am with you that rib injuries can be very dangerous. My buddy hit a tree snowboarding and he almost died from broken ribs and punctured lungs. There were a number of ski patrol that had to tend to him, and he spent a few days in the hospital.

He had what was called flail chest because he broke four of his ribs in the fall. Flail chest is caused by a large area of fracture to the ribs so that the chest cavity is no longer supported. The lungs have to work hard to breathe and the risks for pneumonia or lung collapse are great.

He had to sleep on his broken ribs so that his chest cavity would stay open enough for him to breathe. He also had to take deep breathes and deliberately cough every hour to prevent pneumonia. He was in pretty rough shape for about six weeks and it was about twelve weeks before the injury finally healed. I would never want to suffer this type of injury. Luckily, my buddy is back to normal, and besides a little scarring, there is hardly any evidence of the injury.

By GlassAxe — On Oct 05, 2011

@Istria- You forgot country ribs, rib roasts, and rib tips. Country ribs are parts of the shoulder that contain pieces of loin and maybe a little bit of the baby back ribs. Country rib cuts are generally less fatty and more meaty than ribs, so they should be cooked in a similar fashion as pork chops.

Rib roasts are comprised of baby back ribs and the loin. The baby back ribs, the bones and the connecting tissues all add flavor and tenderness to a rib roast.

Finally, rib tips are the lowest parts of the spare ribs. The rib tips usually have little bone and they are really fatty.

By istria — On Oct 04, 2011

@Alchemy- I can tell you the places on the pig or cow where you will find all of the rib cuts.

Short/Beef Rib: These are the shoulder ribs, near the chuck and along the breast plate that are made up of layers of fat, bone, meat, and connecting tissue. The best method for cooking these is through smoking or slow cooking.

Spare Ribs: These are the pork counterparts to beef ribs that come from the breast bone. The bottom two thirds of the ribs on a pig are considered the spare ribs. The tips of the ribs contain more gristle and cartilage than the middle section of the ribs.

St Louis Ribs: These are basically the same as spare ribs without the rib tips. A St Louis cut rack of ribs is the best cut of ribs made up of a center rectangle of at least 11 ribs.

Baby Back Ribs: These are the top third of pork ribs where the ribs meet the spine. Baby back ribs have a more curved shape than spare or St Louis ribs.

By Alchemy — On Oct 03, 2011

Where on an animal are the spare ribs, short ribs, baby back ribs, etc.? Are these ribs interchangeable in recipes? I am new to barbecue, but I just bought my first grill and I want to cook some ribs. I know very little about cooking. Can someone explain to me the culinary differences between the types of ribs, and where on the pig you will actually find them?

By cougars — On Oct 03, 2011

@Glasshouse- Typically a fractured rib will heal itself in 4-8 weeks. I took a dive mountain biking and cracked a rib on a rock. I was back out riding in four weeks and having no symptoms in seven. The pain was moderate, but by the third day, I did not need anything stronger than a few tablets of acetaminophen.

I am sure a conditioned professional athlete could be back in play in a couple of weeks with medication and extra protection. A punctured lung along with a fractured rib may be harder to bounce back quickly from, but it would not be inconceivable for an athlete to return to contact within a couple of weeks.

I honestly would not count on him returning the next week, but maybe the week after. I doubt that an organization would want to risk the career of a quarterback that they spent the last few years developing.

By Glasshouse — On Oct 02, 2011

I was watching football last week, and Tony Romo broke a few ribs and punctured a lung. How long will it take someone to recover from this type of injury?

Some people are saying he will be ready to play this weekend, but I do not see how that is possible with a punctured lung. I have had bruised ribs before and it hurt to breathe. I can only imagine how difficult it must be to perform at a pro sports level with this type of injury only a week after it happens.

What danger is there in playing so soon after this type of injury? Would a sever hit to the rib cage after an injury like this cause a potentially season ending injury? Having him come back so soon after an injury like this almost crosses the line between what is safe for the player and profitable for the team.

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