Help someone with useful health advice.

Broken Rib Symptoms

Broken Rib Symptoms

A broken rib is caused when there is trauma to the chest, maybe from a fall, an accident, or a fatal blow. As a result, you might experience pain, breathing trouble, or may feel tired and dizzy. Taking precise measures at the right time is a must, as the complications of a broken rib are worse.
Kritika Parwani
Last Updated: Apr 14, 2018
Did You Know?
The human rib cage, also known as thoracic cage, has 24 ribs, but nearly 1 in 500 people have an extra rib known as cervical rib. In some rare cases, they have two as well!

A broken rib is a common injury that occurs when one of the bones in your rib cage breaks or cracks. Ribs are pretty hard to break as they are surrounded by strong muscles and can usually take on a lot of damage before they crack; however, when there is trauma to the chest, such as from a fall, motor vehicle accident, or an impact during contact sports, it can break the ribs. Usually, broken ribs are more common in elderly people than in younger adults. It is not always easy to identify a broken rib, and hence it is important to understand the following information related to the condition in question.

Structure of Ribs

The human body has twelve pairs of ribs; ten pairs attached to the spine and wrapped around to attach to the sternum in front of the chest, and the two lower pairs that are only attached to the spine in the back. The ribs serve to protect the internal organs, lungs, heart, liver, kidneys, and spleen from injury. The bones have a lot of nerve endings, so when damage occurs, pain is significant.

Ribs are classified into three categories according to their location inside the body. The categories are:
  • Upper Ribs, also known as True Ribs
  • Middle Ribs, also known as False Ribs
  • Lower Ribs, also known as Floating Ribs
The middle ribs are the ones that commonly get fractured. Broken ribs usually occur from direct blows or from indirect crushing injuries. The weakest part of a rib is just anterior to its angle, but a fracture can occur anywhere. A lower rib fracture has the complication of potentially injuring the diaphragm, which could result in a diaphragmatic hernia. Broken ribs are usually quite painful because the ribs have to move in order to allow breathing.

Symptoms of Broken Ribs

Following are some of the symptoms you may notice. If you have suffered any kind of trauma and face any of these symptoms, you should seek medical help immediately.

⇒ Swelling: This is a common symptom that is noticed. Usually, swelling or bruising of the chest may occur within minutes after an injury or accident. One may observe hindrance while doing daily activities along with experiencing severe pain in the ribs.

⇒ Tenderness: Another very common symptom is tenderness. A lot of discomfort or pain is observed while touching the injured area. It becomes red and very sensitive. This tenderness usually worsens with movement or activity.

⇒ Painful Breathing: Pain is a principal symptom of a broken rib. The pain is usually worsened by breathing deeply. Pain is also felt when one puts pressure on the rib cage, or while bending and twisting the torso.

⇒ Difficulty in Breathing: Besides, the area being painful while breathing, another cracked rib symptom is difficulty in breathing. One may feel uncomfortable due to lack of sufficient air for breathing. For instance, you might experience headache, dizziness, anxiety, or sleepiness. It is very important to get medical help immediately, if you experience this symptom.


Some people are at a higher risk due to their lifestyle or bone health. For example, people who play contact sports and elderly people are always at a greater risk than others. The following are a few causes of broken ribs.

⇒ Trauma: Broken ribs can occur by any kind of trauma caused to the chest, such as a fall, or a blow during contact sports. Besides these, getting hit in the chest, falling on something and hitting the chest, or smashing the chest into a steering wheel or dashboard during a car accident could certainly lead to broken ribs.

⇒ Pleurisy: Pleurisy, which is also known as pleuritis, is an inflammation of the lining of the pleural cavity around the lungs. The inflamed layers rub on each other when the lungs expand to breathe, causing a sharp pain in the chest. This infection can cause a rib to break and create further problems.

⇒ Osteoporosis: Osteoporosis is a disease that reduces bone density, and hence any person suffering from the same is prone to breaking his ribs even with slight trauma. People with osteoporosis can avoid broken ribs by having calcium supplements, engaging in weight-bearing exercises, and following a balanced diet.

⇒ Severe Coughing: Another cause of broken ribs is severe and prolonged coughing, which can cause extended pressure on the rib cage. Especially, if a person has pneumonia or bronchitis, then severe coughs can lead to broken ribs.

⇒ Cancerous Lesion: One needs to do regular checkups to keep an eye if any lesion is formed on the ribs. The lesion, if cancerous, can make the bones weak and result in breakage of that bone.


Taking proper care is most important if one has been diagnosed with a broken rib as it can go further with many complications. Some of them are mentioned below:

Pneumonia: A broken rib causes difficulty in breathing, sneezing, as well as coughing. It is very necessary to take care as it can lead to a chest infection -- mostly pneumonia. One should take deep breaths every hour, and coughing should not be stopped unless it becomes tough for you as it is a way to throw out infections.

⇒ Punctured Lungs: A broken rib, if having a sharp end, can puncture the lungs leading to their collapse or can rupture the aorta or any other blood vessel. This situation can cause many other complications, which may demand a surgical intervention.

⇒ Damage to Organs: In case the lower ribs are broken, then there is a huge risk of damaging the other organs of the body. These ribs are anchored to the breastbone and can cause damage to liver, kidneys, or spleen.

⇒ Hemothorax: Hemothorax is an injury to the muscles of the chest and can cause internal bleeding between the lungs and cavity of the chest. Normally, doctors make use of a chest tube and drain the blood and air from that area. Surgery is required only if the bleeding is extensive and does not stop.

⇒ Pneumothorax: It is a life-threatening condition that may be caused by a broken rib, known as traumatic pneumothorax. It punctures a lung and causes a buildup of air in the chest cavity. X-rays and CT scans are used to confirm the presence and seriousness of the injury.

How to Deal

The rib cage is the biggest cluster of bones in the human body and one of the most painful areas to heal if any rib is broken. To cope with the situation, one should follow these steps:

⇒ Diagnose: Meet your doctor to confirm the presence of the injury. One has to go through the process of X-ray, CT scan, MRI scan, or bone density test to check the severity, based on which further treatment can be determined.

⇒ Take Rest: It is very necessary to take ample rest and give the broken ribs some time to heal. One should avoid any physical activities which may cause pain and lead to complications. Generally, it takes 4-6 weeks to recover, varying with severity of the injury. Complete rest can help in speedy recovery.

⇒ Pain Management: A broken rib heals with time, but the pain is agonizing. One needs to take proper pain medication, which will include some painkillers; dosage depends on the intensity of the injury. In case of extreme pain, doctors recommend anesthesia to block the nerves that are connected to the ribs.

⇒ Sleeping Positions: The rib cage works as a chamber where lungs expand for breathing. A broken rib can create complications for the lungs to expand. One should consult a doctor for a proper resting position, which can be the side of the broken rib as it will give the lungs room to expand on the other side and one can breathe deeper.

⇒ Ice Packs: One can make use of ice packs or frozen peas wrapped in a cloth to reduce the pain and swelling. Keep the ice pack on the injured rib for 15 minutes once or twice a day, so that the swelling will lessen.

Avoid These

⇒ Smoking is to be strictly avoided as lungs can get damaged further.

⇒ It is advised not to put any kind of bandage around the ribs as it can create problems for breathing and may increase the chances of a pulmonary infection.

If you are experiencing any of the above symptoms, it is very important to get treatment for broken ribs immediately, as any force powerful enough to break a rib is powerful enough to cause other life-threatening injuries.

Disclaimer: The information provided in this article is solely for educating the reader. It is not intended to be a substitute for the advice of a medical professional.