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What is a Broken Rib?

M.C. Huguelet
Updated May 17, 2024
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A broken rib is the partial or complete fracture of one of the bones of the rib cage. This usually painful injury may result from a direct blow to the area, or may be caused by a minor but prolonged form of distress to the ribs, such as frequent coughing fits. Minor rib breakages, although uncomfortable, are usually not serious, while severe breakages can cause damage to nearby organs. Generally, a broken rib will heal on its own in approximately six weeks. During that time, pain medication may be necessary to support normal lung function.

The most common cause of a broken rib is a direct blow to the area. This type of blow may result from such incidents as a fall, a car crash, or a collision while playing a contact sport. Less commonly, a minor but ongoing form of distress to the ribs, such as continuous coughing fits, can cause a breakage. These indirect breakages usually only occur in ribs that have been weakened by a condition like osteoporosis.

As the breathing muscles press against the ribs, one of the most prevalent symptoms of a broken rib is shallow or painful breathing. Generally, the site of the breakage is also tender to the touch. If fragmented rib pieces have damaged a nearby body part, additional symptoms such as chest pain may also be present.

Those who suspect a broken rib should consult a physician immediately. Normally, imaging tests such as X-rays or computerized tomography (CT) scans are used to identify a breakage in the rib area. If a physician has identified a breakage, she will generally then determine whether it poses a risk to other body parts. While ribs that have been simply cracked usually present no serious risks, those that have been broken into two or more pieces can potentially pierce a nearby organ, causing significant damage. Thus, those with a severe breakage may be admitted to the hospital for observation.

Due to its location within the torso, a broken rib cannot be set in the way that many broken bones can. Nevertheless, a rib breakage will generally heal itself within approximately six weeks. During that time, it may be necessary to manage rib pain with over-the-counter or prescription medication. Using pain medication makes movement, sleeping, and other daily activities more comfortable. In addition, it helps to facilitate normal breathing, which is essential to the prevention of breathing-related conditions such as pneumonia and collapsed lung.

WiseGeek is dedicated to providing accurate and trustworthy information. We carefully select reputable sources and employ a rigorous fact-checking process to maintain the highest standards. To learn more about our commitment to accuracy, read our editorial process.
M.C. Huguelet
By M.C. Huguelet
Cate Huguelet, a Chicago-based freelance writer with a passion for storytelling, crafts engaging content for a wide range of publications, including WiseGeek. With degrees in Writing and English, she brings a unique perspective and a commitment to clean, precise copy that resonates with readers. Her ability to understand and connect with audiences makes her a valuable asset to any content creation team.
Discussion Comments
By Heavanet — On Sep 23, 2014

I had a mild broken rib a few years ago, and the pain was moderate. Over-the-counter pain medications worked for me, because I can't take stronger prescriptions pain medications. Always check with your doctor first though, regardless of what you plan to do to treat the pain of a broken rib.

By Ocelot60 — On Sep 23, 2014

My mom broke a rib from coughing. Her doctor told her that the best treatment for her broken rib was to get plenty of rest. He also said that her problem probably came from osteoporosis and not getting enough calcium.

Everyone, women especially, should eat at least 3 servings of dairy products each day. If this isn't possible, taking calcium supplements is a good idea to help build stronger bones and avoid these types of painful breaks.

M.C. Huguelet
M.C. Huguelet
Cate Huguelet, a Chicago-based freelance writer with a passion for storytelling, crafts engaging content for a wide...
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