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Cracked rib and broken rib

What is a fractured rib?

A broken rib, cracked rib or fractured rib is a crack or break in one of the bones in the rib cage.

The usual cause of a cracked rib is a blow to the chest, which might be sustained by a fall or as a result of a car accident.

A broken rib could also be caused by severe coughing, although this is more likely if there is weakness in the ribs caused by a bone disease like osteoporosis.

Rib fractures caused by minor injuries can usually be treated at home, but severe chest injuries caused by falling from heights, major road accidents, or as a result of being crushed need to be treated at an A&E department.

How do I know that I have broken a rib?

Ribs that are fractured, broken or bruised will feel painful every time you breathe in or cough. This may make you feel like you can only take shallow breaths.

You may also experience swelling or tenderness around the injured area, as well as bruising to the skin.

How are rib fractures treated?

Broken or fractured ribs caused by minor injuries are usually treated at home.

Ribs cannot be splinted like other bones, so they should be left to heal naturally - a process that typically takes around four to six weeks.

The key to self-healing is adequate pain relief to help you overcome the pain associated with breathing.

If you are tempted to only take shallow breaths and avoid coughing there is a heightened risk of developing a chest infection, so control the pain by taking over-the-counter painkillers like paracetamol or ibuprofen. This will make it easier for you to take deeper breaths.

Any swelling can be reduced by holding an ice pack to the affected area.

It is important not to smoke while recovering from the injury.

Do not tape or tightly wrap the injured rib area, as this could restrict breathing.

If your rib fracture was caused by a serious injury you should go to A&E or seek medical advice. You should also seek medical help if you experience any of the following symptoms:

  • Shortness of breath
  • Increasing chest pain
  • Pain in the abdomen or shoulder
  • A cough or fever

These symptoms could be a sign of a chest infection or an indication that a broken rib has damaged a lung, causing it to collapse.

You may need to take some time off work while recovering from a fractured rib, particularly if your job involves heavy, physical work or the pain is very severe.

WebMD Medical Reference

Medically Reviewed by Dr Rob Hicks on November 08, 2013

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