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Broken or bruised ribs

Bruised or broken ribs can be very painful, but usually heal by themselves.

Check if you have a bruised or broken rib

Broken or bruised ribs are usually caused by a fall, a blow to the chest or severe coughing.

Symptoms include:

  • strong pain in your chest area, particularly when you breathe in
  • swelling or tenderness around the affected ribs
  • sometimes bruising on the skin
  • feeling or hearing a crack if it's a broken rib

Ribs cannot be easily splinted or supported like other bones, so they're usually left to heal naturally.

There's often no need for an X-ray.

Things you can do yourself

Broken or bruised ribs heal in the same way and usually get better by themselves within 3 to 6 weeks.

There are some things you can do to help ease pain and speed up healing:

Do

  • take painkillers, such as paracetamol or ibuprofen – avoid taking ibuprofen for 48 hours after your injury as it may slow down healing
  • hold an ice pack (or a bag of frozen peas in a tea towel) to the affected ribs regularly in the first few days to bring down swelling
  • rest and take time off work if you need to
  • breathe normally and cough when you need to – this helps clear mucus from your lungs to prevent chest infections
  • if you need to cough, hold a pillow against your chest
  • walk around and sometimes move your shoulders to help you breathe and clear mucus from your lungs
  • take 10 slow, deep breaths every hour to help clear your lungs
  • try to sleep more upright for the first few nights

Don't

  • do not wrap a bandage tightly around your chest to stop your lungs expanding properly
  • do not lie down or stay still for a long time
  • do not strain yourself or lift heavy objects
  • do not play any sports or do any exercise that makes your pain worse
  • do not smoke – stopping smoking may also help your recovery

Urgent advice: Get advice from 111 now if:

  • your pain has not improved within a few weeks
  • you're coughing up yellow or green mucus
  • you have a very high temperature or you feel hot and shivery

You might need stronger painkillers or have a chest infection that needs antibiotics.

111 will tell you what to do. They can arrange a phone call from a nurse or doctor if you need one.

Go to 111.nhs.uk or call 111.

Other ways to get help

Get an urgent GP appointment

A GP may be able to help you.

Ask your GP practice for an urgent appointment.

Immediate action required: Call 999 or go to A&E if you:

  • have an injury caused by a serious accident, such as a car accident
  • have shortness of breath that's getting worse
  • have chest pain that's getting worse
  • have pain in your tummy or shoulder
  • are coughing up blood

It could mean a broken rib has damaged something else, like your lung, liver or spleen.

Page last reviewed: 15 December 2017
Next review due: 15 December 2020