A rib fracture is a crack or break in one or more of your rib bones.
Your ribs are the round, flat bones in your chest that wrap around your upper body. They connect your breastbone to your spine.
More about your injury
A rib fracture can be very painful because your ribs move when you breathe, cough, and move your upper body.
The ribs in the middle of the chest are the ones that break most often.
Rib fractures often occur with other chest and organ injuries. So your doctor will also check to see if you have any other injuries.
What to expect
Healing takes at least 6 weeks.
If you injure other body organs, you may need to stay in the hospital. Otherwise you can heal at home. Most people with broken ribs do not need surgery.
In the emergency room you may have received a strong medicine (such as a nerve block or narcotics) if you were in severe pain.
You will not have a belt or a bandage around your chest because these would keep your ribs from moving when you breathe or cough. This may lead to a lung infection (pneumonia).
Apply an ice pack 20 minutes of every hour you are awake for the first 2 days, then 10 to 20 minutes 3 times daily as needed to reduce pain and swelling. Wrap the ice pack in a cloth before applying to the injured area.
You may need prescription pain medicines (narcotics) to keep your pain under control while your bones heal.
- Take these medicines on the schedule your health care provider prescribed.
- Do not drink alcohol, drive, or operate heavy machinery while you are taking these medicines.
- To avoid becoming constipated, drink more fluids, eat high-fiber foods, and use stool softeners.
- To avoid nausea or vomiting, try taking your pain medicines with food.
If your pain is not severe, you can use ibuprofen (Advil, Motrin) or naproxen (Aleve, Naprosyn). You can buy these pain medications at the store.
- These should be avoided for the first 24 hours after your injury since they may promote bleeding.
- Talk with your health care provider before using these medicines if you have heart disease, high blood pressure, kidney disease, liver disease, or have had stomach ulcers or internal bleeding in the past.
- Do not take more than the amount recommended on the bottle or by your health care provider.
Acetaminophen (Tylenol) may also be used for pain by most people.
To help prevent a collapsed lung or lung infection, do slow deep-breathing and gentle coughing exercises every 2 hours. Holding a pillow or blanket against your injured rib can make these less painful. You may need to take your pain medicine first.
It is important to stay active. Do not rest in bed all day. Your health care provider will talk with you about when you can return to:
- Your everyday activities
- Work, which will depend on the type of job you have
- Sports or other high impact activity
While you heal, avoid movements that put painful pressure on your ribs. These include doing crunches and pushing, pulling, or lifting heavy objects.
Your health care provider will make sure you are doing your exercises and that your pain is under control so that you can be active.
There is usually no need for taking x-rays as you heal, unless you develop fever, cough, increasing pain or difficulty breathing.
When to call the doctor
Call your doctor if you have:
- Pain that does not allow deep breathing or coughing
- Cough or increase in mucous that you cough up
- Shortness of breath
- Side effects of pain medicine such as nausea, vomiting, or skin rashes
Rib fractures. In: Eiff MP, Hatch R, eds. Fracture Management for Primary Care. 3rd ed. Philadelphia, PA: Elsevier Saunders; 2011:chap 18.
Update Date 5/15/2014
Updated by: C. Benjamin Ma, MD, Assistant Professor, Chief, Sports Medicine and Shoulder Service, UCSF Department of Orthopaedic Surgery. Also reviewed by David Zieve, MD, MHA, Isla Ogilvie, PhD, and the A.D.A.M. Editorial team.