What to Do for a Broken Rib

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This survival-medicine website provides general information, not individual advice. Most scenarios assume the victim cannot get expert medical help. Please see the disclaimer.

The Broken Rib Don’t (Formerly a Do)

by James Hubbard, MD, MPH

I heard a pro football player being interviewed on television say that of all the multiple injuries he had suffered through, a broken rib was the most painful. I can see why. It hurts anytime you move your arms, bend—it even hurts to breathe. And it can hurt for weeks. So what can you do to help it heal and relieve the pain?

One thing you shouldn’t do for a broken rib is wrap it. I know, that’s what we always used to do, and it can ease the pain considerably, but whether you wrap the ribs with a rib belt, elastic bandages, or anything else, you’re not going to be able to breath as deeply, and that puts you at risk for pneumonia.

But since pain is the main problem with most rib fractures, what can you do?

  1. Take it easy. The rib is going to heal. It’s going to take six to eight weeks. You might as well mentally deal with it and physically not overdo it by, say chopping wood, or doing something that’s going to injure the tissue around the break and make it tenderer.
  2. Take over-the-counter pain meds like ibuprofen (Advil), naproxen (Aleve), or acetaminophen (Tylenol) to relieve the pain and inflammation.
  3. Apply ice packs covered with cloth for ten minutes on, ten minutes off to relieve the pain and swelling.
  4. Make sure you take good, deep breaths to keep your lungs expanded. If it hurts too much, press the area around the pain with your hand or up against something hard for support. Do the same if it hurts too bad to sneeze or cough. Yes, I know this is doing essentially the same as an elastic binder, but you’re only doing it for a few seconds.
What About a Chest-Wall Strain?

You really can’t tell the difference between a strain and a rib fracture without an X-ray. And even then, some rib fractures are missed. But it doesn’t matter a whole lot because you’re going to treat them the same. The X-ray is to make sure the injury hasn’t punctured a lung or caused bleeding in the chest cavity. Also, if you see a fracture, you can predict it’s probably going to take longer for the pain to go away.

Complications of Rib Fractures

While broken ribs usually aren’t an immediate threat to life by themselves, the following complications can be dangerous. You may need to get professional medical help if they happen.

1. Bleeding into the chest wall.
The sharp, fractured bone can move out of place during the initial injury and damage a blood vessel that can leak blood into the chest wall. The blood between the chest wall and lung puts pressure on the lung and squeezes it into a smaller space. Besides pain, you’re going to get really short of breath.

2. Punctured lung.
The sharp fracture can puncture the lung. Just like the blood, air leaks out into the area between the chest wall and lung, putting pressure back on the lung. It’s really impossible in the field to know the difference between this and the bleeding.

3. Pneumonia.
This is the one you have the best chance to prevent by heeding the four steps above.

Treatment of Complications

A small amount of blood or air caught between the lung and chest wall will go away on its own. Usually there’s more pain and shortness of breath but not extreme. Larger amounts can cause quite a bit of shortness of breath and may need to be drained for relief as soon as possible. That’s for another post.

I already have a post on pneumonia, but antibiotics are key.


Have any of you ever had a chest injury? What did you do for it? How long did it take for the pain to go away?

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  • James Banks Jr.

    I think my son busted a rib or two last week. It’s hurts like crazy to laugh, take deep breaths, cough, or move the wrong way. It started to feel a little better the other day, then I re-positioned myself withou thinking(I’m a long haul Truck driver), felt a pop, and the immense pain returned. From everyone’s comments, looks like it’s going to be a rough couple of months. Thank you for the information.

  • Alex

    I am having rib pain, feels like an old football injury I suffered from about 15 years ago. I am not sure how it happened this time. I did take a fall around the time the pain started, but I did not hit my rib cage on that fall. Then a few days later the pain started slow, and I kept working and the pain got worse. I then awoke from my bed in real pain, and have not been able to sleep in bed for 3 weeks, I must lay in a nest I built on my couch, in a certain position, to get any good sleep. I am wondering why the pain could start mild and get worse. Maybe an infection? I have started antibiotics just in case. Going to the doctor is an option, but no insurance and they will say..”Yep ribs suck” “Pay us”.

    • http://thesurvivaldoctor.com/ James Hubbard, MD, MPH

      Alex, you’ve given it 3 weeks. I think it’s time to go to the doctor, find the problem and best treatment.

      • John

        As a doctor it is our job to keep you in the most discomfort as possible so that you will have to see us continually ( specifically the ER, which proves to be pretty lucrative) This is why we hate Obamacare, it is making ER visits less frequent and taking away one of our cash cows. I used to attend the ER quite frequently , until it became to resemble work, then I just hired a few lackey PAs and they now “work” it for me. Can you say ka-Ching? No work, more money… Win-win

      • Alex

        Yeah, went in today, she poked me had x-rays and said…”ribs suck”, then they gave me a $250 charge. Oh! She told me to use a moist warm treatment and gave script for muscle relaxers. Should have stayed home.

        • Derek

          I fell onto someone’s elbow with my armpit during a BJJ class, which knocked the wind out of me and my rib out of place. Since my adrenaline was going, I popped it back into place and finished the class. That was 6 days ago. Today although it is less painful to laugh, it hurts to move my arm and that affects my work. So I was considering going to a doctor.

          My question is, has anyone on this forum had a doctor perform a physical treatment for a broken rib, or is it all words and pills?

          • Alex

            I am not a doctor, if I was I would have to tell you the “safe” answer and say go to a doctor. Not being a doctor, you must take my words as that. There is nothing they can do. Maybe x-rays to show that your rib wont puncture a lung, but I think you are past that point. They will stick you with a bill though, and maybe some muscle relaxers. If you can handle the pain just rest as much as you can and let it heal. If the pain gets too bad, wrap it with an ace bandage, but only for a short time, due to pneumonia concerns. I wrapped my ribs for 20 mins if the pain was to bad, but no longer than that. Also do deep breathing exercises when you can, to make sure your lungs are expanding and keep pneumonia at bay. Took me 6 weeks to stop getting worse and start healing. It was 8-10 weeks before I felt 95%.

  • hills

    Ive broken 3 ribs due to a fall im on tablets to get rid of mucus in my lung that was affectes . My question is im terrified im a carer with peopke to be honesr are lazy and im scared its gonna damage me lifting lazy people aids or not i ask for your advice pleaseI

    • http://thesurvivaldoctor.com/ James Hubbard, MD, MPH

      Like any other breaks, ribs take time to heal. During that time you’ll have to limit lifting, maybe not all at first, then gradually build back up. After they have healed, and you’ve built you’re strength back up, you should be able to lift again as you did before the injury. You doctor should be able to give you some more specifics.

  • Abby

    My fiance has his left rib broken in 2 places after a bike accident then again while a boxing practice his friend hit him again without knowing. He had the accident in June 2014 and ever since he goes in the hospital everyday taking meds that is supposed to sort everything out and talking to the specialized doctor and having therapy massages. He’s had internal bleeding cause the rib was scratching the lung. He’s been going to the hospital for 5 months now but nothing is progressing not even 1%. Any suggestion on what he would do? Below is a pic of how his rib looks like

    • http://thesurvivaldoctor.com/ James Hubbard, MD, MPH

      Sorry, Abby. No idea. He’s been going to the hospital every day for 5 months? Perhaps he should see a second opinion.

  • Dominique Love

    Ok I was taking a nap laying on my left side I coughed and I felt something like a pop every since it hurts to cough sneeze bend over and even just laying still it is a tender on going pain. Could I have cracked a rib?

    • http://thesurvivaldoctor.com/ James Hubbard, MD, MPH

      Could you? yes. Did you? I don’t know.

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  • scott

    a broken rib is bad

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  • Jwoods12

    I just got out of the hospital about two weeks ago. I was in a bad car wreck and broke a couple ribs, had a collapsed lung so I had to have a chest tube, had spinal surgery (t3-t7 fused together with two 9″ rods). Along with multiple stitches and cuts. Out of everything the ribs have been the most painful! I’m taking tylonol and trying to rest but I start back to work tomorrow. Wish me luck with a 10 hour shift!

    • http://thesurvivaldoctor.com/ James Hubbard, MD, MPH

      Good luck. And take it slow at work.

  • Wayne

    I am not a MD and base this on research of my own but its appears to me that taking any nsaid including advil, aleve, celebrex… will slow the inflammatory response causing the ribs to take longer to heal. Realistically these drugs will not deal with pain much any ways, in my case of 6 broken ribs it took something stronger, any opiate (Tylenol 3, Morphine, Oxycodone) will provide temporary comfort to get some sleep. A lazy boy chair will be your best friend for this injury as laying down and trying to get up will be very uncomfortable. Nutrition should also not be forgotten, Minerals make up alot of our bones and vitamins are the catalyst to make use of these. The body burns more calories as well so try to eat more lean protein and fruits/vegetables then usual. My 2 cents to a speedy recovery.

    • http://thesurvivaldoctor.com/ James Hubbard, MD, MPH

      Thanks, Wayne,
      You’re correct. It’s possible taking an NSAID can impair heating, however small, but don’t discount it for pain. Many studies have shown it equivalent to codeine.