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Rib Fracture / Broken Rib

Definition :
A broken rib, or fractured rib, is a common injury that occurs when one of the bones in your rib cage breaks or cracks. The most common cause of broken ribs is trauma to the chest, such as from a fall, motor vehicle accident or impact during contact sports.

Signs and symptoms of a broken rib include pain, especially when taking a deep breath or pressing on the injured area.

In most cases, treatment of broken ribs is directed at controlling the pain until the fracture heals. Broken ribs usually heal in about one to two months.

Broken ribs are a common injury, usually caused by trauma to the chest as during a fall, motor vehicle accident or impact during contact sports.

If you have a condition that weakens your bones — such as osteoporosis, a disease that causes you to lose bone density — it's possible to break a rib with a milder strain, such as a strong coughing spell.

Risk Factors:
The following factors can increase your risk of breaking a rib :

  • Osteoporosis. Having osteoporosis, a disease in which your bones lose their density, makes you more susceptible to a bone fracture.
  • Age. Because older adults are more prone to osteoporosis and have less elastic ribs, they are at an increased risk of rib fracture.
  • Sports participation. Participating in contact sports, such as hockey or football, increases your risk of trauma to your chest, which can result in a rib fracture.
  • Cancerous lesion in a rib. A cancerous lesion can weaken the bone, making it more susceptible to breaks.

When to seek medical advice :
See your doctor if you have pain in your rib area that occurs after trauma or is present with deep breaths or hinders your breathing.

If you experience pressure, fullness or a squeezing pain in the center of your chest that lasts for more than a few minutes, pain that extends beyond your chest to your shoulder or arm, and increasing episodes of chest pain, get medical attention immediately. These signs and symptoms may indicate a heart attack.

Signs and symptoms of a broken rib may include :

  • Pain when you take a deep breath
  • Pain that gets worse when you press on the injured area, or when you bend or twist your body

Your doctor may be able to diagnose a broken rib based on a medical history and physical examination. During the exam, your doctor will ask about your signs and symptoms and may press gently on your chest.

To confirm the diagnosis, you likely will undergo imaging tests, usually a chest X-ray or, on occasion, a computerized tomography (CT) scan.

Complications :
When ribs break, the sharp edges can occasionally puncture your lung or surrounding tissue. This can cause blood (hemothorax) or air (pneumothorax) to accumulate in the space between your lungs and the walls of your chest. These conditions require immediate medical attention.

Self-care measures, including rest and the use of ice for pain and swelling, are the best treatments for a broken rib.

Over-the-counter pain medications, including acetaminophen (Tylenol, others) and nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) such as ibuprofen (Advil, Motrin, others), can help relieve discomfort as you wait for the fracture to heal. If the pain is severe, injections around the nerves that supply the ribs (nerve blocks) can be used.

Doctors rarely use compression wraps — elastic bandages that you can wrap around your chest — anymore to help "splint" and immobilize the area. Doctors typically don't recommend compression wraps for broken ribs because compression wraps can keep you from taking deep breaths, which can increase the risk of lung infections (pneumonia).

Broken ribs usually heal completely in about one to two months.

The following measures may help you prevent a broken rib :

  • Protect yourself from athletic injuries. Wear protective equipment when playing contact sports.
  • Take steps to decrease your risk of household falls. Remove clutter from your floors and clean spills promptly, use a rubber mat in the shower, keep your home well lit, and put skid-proof backing on carpets and area rugs.
  • Decrease your chance of getting osteoporosis. Getting enough calcium in your diet is important for maintaining strong bones. Aim for about 1,200 milligrams of calcium daily from food and supplements.
Please be aware that this information is provided to supplement the care provided by your physician. It is neither intended nor implied to be a substitute for professional medical advice. CALL YOUR HEALTHCARE PROVIDER IMMEDIATELY IF YOU THINK YOU MAY HAVE A MEDICAL EMERGENCY. Always seek the advice of your physician or other qualified health provider prior to starting any new treatment or with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition.
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