The human rib cage is a bony structure that protects the organs located in the thoracic cavity. The rib cage comprises twelve pairs of ribs, each of these ribs attach at the back to a corresponding vertebra in the spine. These twelve pairs of ribs are grouped into true ribs, false ribs and floating ribs. The true ribs are the first seven pairs, while the next three pairs and the last two pairs are referred to as false ribs and floating ribs respectively. Sternum is another bone which is an important component of the rib cage.
This T-shaped bone is located in the upper middle portion of the chest. Only the first seven pairs of ribs are directly attached to the sternum. Though these long curved bones are strong, blunt chest trauma during motor vehicle accidents, falls, physical assault or any forceful impact while playing contact sports can lead to contusions, cracked ribs or rib fractures. In this article, we will look into the common causes of rib fractures along with rib fracture treatment options.
Causes and Symptoms of a Fractured Rib
Rib fractures are mostly caused when one receives a direct blow to the chest. The extent of damage to the ribs will depend on the force with which the chest is hit. Severe car accidents, wherein the chest bangs against the steering wheel, can also cause the ribs to fracture. Besides high impact blunt chest trauma, repetitive strain due to severe coughing, or physical activities that cause inflammation of the costal cartilages, may also make one vulnerable to rib fracture. Out of the twelve pairs of ribs, the middle ones are most likely to be affected in rib injuries. Though bruised ribs or small cracks in ribs may cause pain, these are usually not associated with serious complications.
Multiple rib fractures or displaced rib fractures, however, can lead to life-threatening situations. If the ribs break and get displaced, the rib fragments can penetrate through lungs and cause them to collapse. Multiple contiguous rib fractures could also lead to a condition called flail chest. This condition can interfere with the expansion of lungs and lead to respiratory distress. Swelling, tenderness, bruising, labored or painful breathing are some of the common rib fracture symptoms. If one experiences any of these symptoms, one must get a thorough medical checkup done. After conducting certain tests, doctors can ascertain how to treat a cracked rib or a fractured rib.
Treatment of a Fractured Rib
If a person sustains a rib injury, X-ray examination, bone scan or other imaging procedures must be conducted to determine if any of the ribs has cracked or fractured. Rest coupled with use of drugs can ease cracked rib symptoms. Any activity that may put stress on the rib cage needs to be avoided. In case of simple fractures or small cracks, application of ice packs may help to alleviate swelling.
While painkillers or anti-inflammatory drugs are usually prescribed, steroids or nerve block injections may be recommended if the pain is severe. Although painful breathing is one of the most common symptoms of a rib fracture, most doctors don't recommend the use of compression wraps or rib belts. Rib belts could have an adverse effect on the patient's breathing. Generally drug therapy is sufficient for the treatment of a cracked rib, however, treatment options may vary in case of injuries that cause ribs to break.
Surgical intervention may be needed if one suffers from a multiple rib fracture. Surgery may involve the removal of fragments. Fixation devices such as contoured metallic plates may be positioned over the rib cage to stabilize the ribs during the recovery period. Rib fracture complications are usually associated with damage to the organs of the chest cavity or upper abdomen. Such complications may arise in the event of a displaced fracture. For instance, a life-threatening situation may arise if the lungs get punctured by a jagged rib.
A procedure called thoracotomy would have to be performed in order to remove blood or air that may have collected between the chest wall and the lungs. One may also need mechanical ventilation. Rib fracture healing time will depend on the type of fracture and the extent of damage one has suffered. While cracked ribs may take a couple of months to heal, one may take longer if there are other complications. One must follow the self-care measures or guidelines given by the doctor to speed up the healing process.
Though drug therapy can help in alleviating the symptoms associated with cracked or fractured ribs, one may need to undergo a surgery if the ribs have been displaced or broken. It is therefore, essential that a thorough medical checkup be conducted if one sustains a traumatic rib injury. A timely diagnosis and treatment will pave the way for a speedy recovery.