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What is a Rib Fracture?

By Amanda Barnhart
Updated Feb 07, 2024
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A rib fracture occurs when one of the bones that protects the lungs breaks or cracks. These fractures are often the result of trauma to the chest, such as a car accident, fall, or sports injury. Rib fractures are often very painful, but they are usually not life-threatening, unless the broken rib damages other internal tissues or organs.

Rib fractures are more common in adults than in children, and the elderly are most at risk. Children’s bones are more flexible than adults’, and trauma to the chest area is more likely to damage internal tissues and organs than break a rib. Children who have a fractured rib are usually victims of extremely serious chest trauma, and often sustain serious damage to the heart, lungs, and other organs. Elderly people with weakened bones due to osteoporosis or other conditions can fracture a rib by simply coughing hard.

It is important for people to see a doctor after trauma to the chest, particularly if they suspect a rib fracture. Pain from this injury can range from mild to severe, and may be worse when breathing deeply. Pain around the rib fracture, when the breastbone is pushed down, is another common sign. A doctor can perform a thorough physical examination, which usually includes an X-ray of the chest area, to determine if and where a fracture exists, and to diagnose any problems with internal organs, blood vessels, or other tissues.

Most rib fractures heal on their own within four to six weeks. Patients are typically advised to rest as much as possible during the healing process, and avoid any activities that cause pain or make it difficult to breathe. Pain medications, including over-the-counter and prescription drugs, can help ease pain and swelling. Epidural anesthesia can be administered through a small tube inserted in the spine to numb the pain, though this is typically reserved for patients with severe pain that does not improve with oral medications.

Using ice packs on the injured area for 10 to 15 minutes at a time, several times a day, can help relieve swelling and pain. Taking deep breaths or coughing at least once an hour can help prevent pneumonia, a collapsed lung, and other lung complications. Since deep breathing is so important, rib fracture patients should not tape or wrap the chest area during the healing period.

Surgery to repair broken ribs is usually reserved for serious fractures that involve several ribs or a complete break. A surgeon can repair broken ribs with surgical plates and screws to hold the bone together and allow natural healing to take place in the case of a severe fracture. Surgery to repair organs and internal tissues may be needed if they were damaged due to a broken rib.

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