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Rib Fracture


What is a rib fracture?

A rib fracture is a crack or break in a rib. A rib fracture can be caused by trauma such as a car accident or fall. Trauma can increase your risk for organ damage when your rib is fractured. Stress fractures in your ribs happen in your upper or middle ribs. Stress fractures can happen when you have a forceful long-term cough. Other things that increase your risk for rib fractures include being an older adult, osteoporosis, and tumors.

Rib Cage

What else do I need to know about rib fractures?

Flail chest occurs if 3 or more of your ribs are broken in 2 or more places. This condition may make it hard for you to breathe. Normally, when you take a breath, your rib cage expands. Flail chest prevents your ribs from expanding. This can cause your broken ribs to push inward on your organs.

What are the signs and symptoms of a rib fracture?

  • Chest wall pain that worsens when you breathe, move, or cough
  • Bruising or swelling near your injury
  • Shortness of breath or difficulty taking a deep breath

How is a rib fracture diagnosed?

Your healthcare provider will ask about your injury and examine you. The provider will look for any signs of bleeding or bruising. He or she will also ask about your breathing and pain. An x-ray or CT scan may show the fracture or other injuries. You may be given contrast liquid to help the fracture show up better in the pictures. Tell the healthcare provider if you have ever had an allergic reaction to contrast liquid. You may also need an ultrasound of your abdomen to check for injuries to your abdominal organs.

How is a rib fracture treated?

  • Medicines:
    • NSAIDs help decrease swelling and pain. NSAIDs are available without a doctor's order. Ask your healthcare provider which medicine is right for you. Ask how much to take and when to take it. Take as directed. NSAIDs can cause stomach bleeding and kidney problems if not taken correctly.
    • Prescription pain medicine may be given. Ask your healthcare provider how to take this medicine safely. Some prescription pain medicines contain acetaminophen. Do not take other medicines that contain acetaminophen without talking to your healthcare provider. Too much acetaminophen may cause liver damage. Prescription pain medicine may cause constipation. Ask your healthcare provider how to prevent or treat constipation.
    • Intercostal nerve block may be given to numb the injured area for about 6 hours. It is given as a shot between 2 of your ribs in the fractured area. You may need this if your pain continues or is getting worse even after you take oral pain medicines.
  • Deep breathing and coughing will decrease your risk for a lung infection. Hug a pillow on the injured side while doing this exercise, to decrease pain. Take a deep breath and hold it for as long as possible. You should let the air out and then cough strongly. Deep breaths help open your airway. You may be given an incentive spirometer to help take deep breaths. Put the plastic piece in your mouth. Take a slow, deep breath. You should then let the air out and cough. Repeat these steps 10 times every hour.
  • Rest and limit activity as directed to decrease swelling and pain, and allow your injury to heal. Avoid activities that may cause more pain or damage to your ribs such as, pulling, pushing, and lifting. As your pain decreases, begin movements slowly. Take short walks between rest periods.
  • Ice helps decrease swelling and pain. Ice may also help prevent tissue damage. Use an ice pack or put crushed ice in a plastic bag. Cover it with a towel and place it on your injured area for 15 to 20 minutes every hour as directed.
  • Surgery may be needed if many of your ribs are badly fractured. Surgery is often needed for a flail chest. Broken ribs may be held together with plates and screws. An injury to an organ, nerve, or blood vessel may also be treated with surgery.

Call 911 for any of the following:

  • You have trouble breathing.
  • You have new or increased pain.

When should I seek immediate care?

  • Your pain does not get better, even after treatment.
  • You have a fever or a cough.

When should I contact my healthcare provider?

  • You have questions or concerns about your condition or care.

Care Agreement

You have the right to help plan your care. Learn about your health condition and how it may be treated. Discuss treatment options with your healthcare providers to decide what care you want to receive. You always have the right to refuse treatment. The above information is an educational aid only. It is not intended as medical advice for individual conditions or treatments. Talk to your doctor, nurse or pharmacist before following any medical regimen to see if it is safe and effective for you.

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Further information

Always consult your healthcare provider to ensure the information displayed on this page applies to your personal circumstances.

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