Rib injuries (fractured or bruised ribs) 

  • Overview

Introduction 

X-ray showing several fractured ribs (orange, centre left) 

Emergency services

Read about A&E departments and other emergency services available in the NHS, such as minor injury units or emergency contraception

Fractured or bruised ribs are usually caused by a blow to the chest and normally take about three to six weeks to heal. Both are treated with painkillers. Occasionally, rib injuries can lead to serious lung problems.

If you think you've injured your ribs as a result of a minor injury, you will often be able to care for this injury at home. Ribs can't be splinted like other bones, so they should be left to heal naturally.

Rib injuries are treated in the same way, even if the ribs are broken or just bruised (bruising means injury to the muscles surrounding the ribs). This means a chest X-ray is usually not necessary.

The exception is if the injury has resulted from a major vehicle collision, a fall from a height or a crush injury. In this case, you should go straight to your nearest accident and emergency department for an assessment.

This page focuses on the care of a minor rib injury. It explains the following:

  • how you can tell if you've injured your ribs
  • caring for your injury at home
  • when to see a doctor

'How can I tell if I've injured my ribs?'

A broken or bruised rib will feel painful every time you breathe in. You may feel you can only take shallow breaths, but it's important you try to breathe normally and allow your lungs to expand fully (see below).

You may also have swelling or tenderness around the injured area, and bruising to the skin.

Caring for your injury at home

You may need to take time off work, especially if your work involves physical labour or the pain is severe.

Pain relief is really important, as it will hurt every time you breathe in or cough. Taking shallow breaths and avoiding coughing will only put you at risk of a chest infection.

You can control the pain by :

  • regularly taking over-the-counter painkilllers, such as paracetamol and ibuprofen (note that aspirin shouldn't be given to children aged under 16) – follow the dosage instructions on the packet
  • holding an ice pack to your chest to reduce the pain and swelling – try a bag of frozen peas wrapped in a tea towel
  • supporting your chest with a pillow if you need to cough

Try to breathe deeply and let your lungs inflate fully. Regular breathing exercises, such as 10 very deep breaths every hour, can help prevent infection.

Don't wrap a bandage tightly around your chest, as this will stop your lungs expanding properly.

It's really important not to smoke when you're recovering from a rib injury. Get help stopping smoking.

Your rib injury should have healed within three to six weeks.

When to see a doctor

Seek medical help immediately if you have any of the following symptoms:

  • shortness of breath
  • increasing chest pain
  • pain in the abdomen or shoulder
  • cough or coughing up blood stained sputum
  • fever – a temperature of 38C (100.4F) or above

Your GP can prescribe you stronger painkillers if necessary, and will refer you to hospital if they feel you need further medical treatment.

The above symptoms may indicate a chest infection, or may mean a broken rib has damaged your lung, causing the lung to collapse (known as a pneumothorax).

To check for these problems and to see if there is any damage to the organs in your abdomen, you may need an X-ray, ultrasound scan or CT scan. Treatment from a cardiothoracic surgeon is rare and only for serious injuries with complications.




Page last reviewed: 18/06/2013

Next review due: 18/06/2015

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Comments

The 8 comments posted are personal views. Any information they give has not been checked and may not be accurate.

nizzo said on 03 May 2014

I recently had a mountain biking accident, and separated my a/c joint and bad muscle trauma. However, I tried to explain that I had really bad pain in my back when I went to hospital. They didn't check it, nore did the doctor when I went there a week later. It hurts when I sneeze, or cough. I mean really hurts, I double up in pain and it takes around 3/4 minutes for the pain to subside. The accident happened over 3 weeks ago and although the shoulder injury seems to be getting better, the pain in my back is still there. Suggestions?

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Maggie Baby Girl said on 02 February 2014

I too have fallen prey to the bruised ribs syndrome. This is by far the most painful of all minor injuries! I have a high threshold for pain, I birthed two large babies via natural child birth in the mid-1980's, so I can endure pain. This rib injury far surpasses the pain in giving birth! I was up and down my ladder last week in the garage cleaning the rafters out. This entailed taking boxes down, re-packing and labeling them, etc.. On a trip down, box tucked awkwardly under my arm, I hopped off the bottom rung, felt the box dropping and with both hands caught it pulling it hard into my right side. I heard a weird noise from deep inside my chest area, then excruciating pain. I knew what had happened as I was in a car accident 8 years ago resulting in 2 fractured ribs. Time, that is the only true remedy! And lots if it. So I've been popping Vanquish, a high powered OTC aspirin to control the pain. Best advice: don't try to go back to your usual routine too soon, which I did, it will set you back further! I decided after a week I was"better" and back to the garage I went only to discover that lifting heavy boxes and carrying them up the ladder, which involves stretching and pulling, re-injured my tender area and now the pain is worse than the original injury!! Lesson learned, and I am terrible at being "down"!!!

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knbshastry said on 02 February 2014

Hello,
My sister met with an accident nearly 14 months back. She had rib injuries. (Hair crack, as by the doctor)
Still she is facing the pain, that too severe pain. even she has pain in the right hand.

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Miss Chatty said on 14 January 2014

Just a few days before Christmas I had friends round for dinner when I fell on the stairs. I thought I was on the last step when I was actually on the second last step, unfortunately I fell against a heavy wrought iron unit at the bottom of the stairs. I knew right away that I had done serious damage to my ribs just under my arm. My main concern was that as I lay on the floor I was not able to breath but I was just winded and was able to take deep breaths within minutes so I knew I hadn't punctured my lung, although the pain was terrible. I went to A & E the next morning after phoning NHS24 and they confirmed I had broken my rib. They gave me strong pain killers which I did not take (I am on medication and never take them) but once I developed an infection in my trachea (wind pipe) as well which gave me a bad chesty cough, I had to use them as the pain caused by coughing became too much. Three and a half weeks have passed and I am feeling much better although the rib pain is still quite bad, especially when I try to get comfortable in bed at night (almost impossible). I am gradually trying to get back to my normal tasks but not pulling, pushing or lifting anything very heavy. Lesson learnt....concentrate when coming down stairs and don't chat to friends till you reach the bottom.

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HtHs said on 06 January 2014

I bruised my ribs as a result of coughing too much after having a chest infection with no antibiotics, I had been struggling through the pain to keep on with daily activities, but I did have shortness of breath (due to pain on inhalation/exhalation) and I found it impossible to cough hard enough to clear the mucus from my chest due to pain, alongside the trouble with walking around and getting to sleep comfortably.

One morning I woke up to find that I was in the worst pain I'd ever been throughout the experience, I struggled to get up and down stairs and just walk around the house in general as it was so bad - once again I'm one of these people who shrug of strains and I don't usually use painkillers however I had been taking cold&flu drinks - I also have a very high pain threshold.

I ended up having to use an Emergency Care line as it was the weekend and I had just missed the Doctors in my surgery as they finished up at a clinic, and within one hour of the call I was seeing a nice Doctor who was very helpful.

In the examination I was asked to do the usual breathing in so the Doc could hear if there was fluid on the chest, however as per usual with me they struggled to hear anything. (Just like the Doc I saw at the beginning of my cough - why I ended up with strained ribs) so instead he asked to examine the area itself, to which he pushed on my bruised ribs and to which I burst into tears verbally expressing my pain! He got me to breath in as much as I could and saw how limited it was and then finally agreed to me getting my antibiotics (2 weeks late boohoo)

His advice to me, was to take more paracetamol with Ibruprofen, and to keep moving, as it helped with recovery (just as the same with any other muscle injury). So I made sure I kept on with my normal activities.

A month on and I still have the bruised ribs, but it has improved a lot, I've cleared most of the cough and I can now breathe deep and laugh!

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Health addict said on 03 December 2013

Three days ago I fell down a flight of steps and fractured my ribs, I have read the two comments posted and would like to leave mine which will hopefully help anyone who visits this site.
The pain is immense and I was struggling to breath or walk I went to A and E and was seen by a lovely doctor who thoroughly explained my condition, I was also advised it was essential I take pain killers otherwise the likelihood was I would be back in hospital within five days
I am a health freak who lives in the gym and never takes any medication unless I realise its crucial to my recovery
I can't envisage any gym sessions as I can hardly walk never mind run and I can't sleep properly as I can't get comfortable with the pain
I am self employed so rest is not a option but over the last fourty eight hours I have spoke with three other people who have experienced the same injury , one was kicked by a cow ten years ago and he still has a protruding lump which will stay for ever , one lady like me fell down some steps she states it took eighteen month for her pain to go and another lad I know assures me he broke his ribs strapped them up and continued to play rugby !!
It looks like every case is different all I know for me is I will not be visiting the gym or swimming I will however try to do some extra walking and maybe take pain killers for two to three weeks and try to rest where possible, I will also try to stay positive which is hard whilst in excruciating pain but I have already started with trying to do the deep breathing exercises advised on the site will find out if it helps over next few weeks I guess

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fastasleep said on 10 August 2013

There is no advice on anything I should refrain from doing - other than smoking. My rib bruising is causing me discomfort rather than pain, however I did a cardio session at the gym (I usually go twice per week) and for the next 24 hours the whole bruised area became really painful - ibuprofen worked though!
It is now a week since it happened and I've tried swimming, but after a length of the pool it was obvious that I was aggravating my injury.
It would be good for this page to carry some advice about keeping active whilst you have this type of injury
Cheers
Colin

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AnnMA said on 19 June 2013

I fell down the stairs about 6 weeks ago. I went to urgent care one week later and they told me I had massive internal bruising but nothing broken. I have been to the GP twice since: my ribs still hurt, they still stick out from my abdomen and I live in pain because I refuse ti keep taking 1800mg of ibuprofen a day (I know the consequences it has to the liver so I don't want ti keep taking so much of it).
Still, no one tells me how much longer it will take to heal, if the pain after 6 weeks is normal or wether my ribs will go back to its place again. I honestly cannot take more hours off work to go to the GP not to get any information apart from "your breathing is normal" "take ibuprofen if you are in pain" and "these things take time to heal".
Can anyone give me some answers to this problem without me having to walk heaven and earth during working hours to try and find out if this is going to heal any time soon?
Thank you.
A.M.

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