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Rib Fractures

What is a Rib Fracture?

A rib fracture, also known as a broken rib, is a condition characterized by a crack or break in one of the ribs of the chest due to trauma or weakness of the bones. The ribs are curved bones that surround the chest cavity protecting the vital structures such as the heart and lungs. They are attached to the breast bone in front and the spine behind.

Causes of Rib Fracture

A rib fracture may be caused by blunt or penetrating trauma due to:

  • Motor vehicle accidents
  • Fall from a height
  • Sports injury
  • Physical assault
Weakness of the rib bone may occur due to osteoporosis or bone cancer which can also lead to a rib fracture.

Symptoms of Rib Fracture

Symptoms of rib fracture include:

  • Severe pain while breathing, laughing, coughing, etc.
  • Bruising
  • Swelling or tenderness at the fracture site
  • Difficulty breathing
  • Tiredness due to poor breathing

Diagnosis of Rib Fracture

Your doctor will review your medical history and symptoms and perform a thorough physical examination. Certain diagnostic tests may be ordered including:

  • Chest X-ray: This study uses high electromagnetic energy beams to produce images of the ribs to help detect fractures.
  • Bone scan: This is a nuclear imaging test that helps identify damage or disease in the bone using contrast material.
  • Ultrasound scan: This study uses high-frequency sound waves to produce images of the tissues at the fracture site.
  • MRI scan: This study uses large magnetic fields and radio waves to produce images of the soft tissues or ligaments near the ribs.
  • CT scan: This test uses multipleX-rays directed at the body from different directions to obtain a series of cross-sectional images which can help identify rib fractures as well as any damage to the blood vessels and soft tissues.
The fracture may be a crack in the bone or a complete break. Complete rib fractures can sometimes cause damage to the lungs, heart, and important blood vessels such as the aorta which is the main artery of the body. These conditions need to be addressed emergently.

Treatment for Rib Fractures

Treatment for a rib fracture is based on the severity of the condition. Usually, cracks or small rib fractures heal easily within about 6 weeks. Some of the treatment measures include:

  • Resting: Your doctor will recommend that you take a break from sports or avoid performing strenuous physical activities or lifting to allow the broken rib to heal.
  • Medications: Your doctor will suggest over-the-counter pain medications to relieve the pain.
  • Breathing Therapy: While your ribs are in the stage of healing, your doctor will suggest that you undergo breathing therapy which involves deep breathing and voluntary coughing once every hour to clear the lungs and reduce the risk of pneumonia (lung infection)
  • You should not wrap any objects or material around your chest, as it restricts breathing and will increase the risk of pneumonia.

If these conservative measures are found to be ineffective and if the fracture is severe and has punctured or damaged organs or blood vessels, surgery will be recommended.