What to Do for a Broken Rib

Important Caution. Please Read This!

Use the information on this site AT YOUR OWN RISK, and read the disclaimer.








Subscribe for Free!

Never miss a post or update.

BONUS: Right now, you'll also receive "The Survival Doctor's Ultimate Emergency Medical Supplies" report—FREE!

We respect your email privacy.

 Subscribe in a reader

Find The Survival Doctor on FacebookFollow The Survival Doctor on TwitterFollow Me on PinterestFollow me on GoodreadsSubscribe to me on YouTube

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?

(Subscribe to updates below.)

  • Subscribe for Free!
    Never miss a post or update.

    BONUS: You'll also receive "The Survival Doctor's Ultimate Emergency Medical Supplies" report—FREE!

    We respect your email privacy.

Photo by Kordite on Flickr.

  • Pingback: Reduce Asthma Attacks and Panic Attacks by Retraining Your Breathing

  • 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.

  • Henry

    3 days ago I was kicked in the chest and arm by a young horse. For the first day the only thing that really hurt was my arm since he got my directly in the elbow. On the second day I noticed that the right side of my chest just below my breast felt a bit tender. By the night of day two it hurt just to breathe normally and to top it all off I have a cold so I can’t stop blowing my nose, coughing, sneezing etc. The pain is so bad that it brings me to tears. I haven’t been to the emergency room because everything I keep reading suggests that there isn’t much that can be done to treat a broken or fractured rib anyway. Many of my friends and family continue insisting that I go to the hospital, I’m just wondering if you think it is important to have it xrayed or if I am ok to just wait and see if the pain starts to diminish over time.

    • crayz_dave

      i fell 15 feet and broke 2 ribs on my left side , i Didn’t go to the ER like my wife wanted me to , but i did go see a family doctor after my wife called her and she told me what i already knew i had broke 2 ribs, the doctor asked me to go get EX rays to see if they was still in place and haven’t moved , 5 days later i did and got pills to help heal , yes it does hurt to cough or sneeze , but it will heal in time the Ex Rays shhowed the doctor what i said and it was a waste of time to get the Ex rays done , of course im hard headed too lol

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

        Wish you the best.

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

      Henry, if you’re having trouble breathing due to pain, you should go see a doctor. You could see your regular doctor, go to an urgent care clinic, or go to the emergency room.

  • Pingback: The Journalists' Guide to Surviving Sochi «

  • Samantha

    On 1/3/2014 I was in an accident that kept me hospitalized for 2 weeks. I’m home now with 8+ broken/fractured ribs on the right as well as a swollen, stitched up left leg (amongst a bunch of other pedestrian/truck injuries).
    How do I sleep??? I try sitting up and after awhile my ribs hurt or my butt is numb, not supposed to lay flat, I just don’t know WHAT to do!!! I understand it takes time but how do I cope for now??

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

      Samantha, I’m sure that’s a miserable situation. Were you able to sleep in the hospital? If so, I’d follow that routine. have you asked for some pain and/or sleeping pills for the short-term? What about a rib belt to wear at night? Also, what about nerve blocks to nerves that innervate some of the ribs, or a lidocaine patch? That’s just some suggestions off the top of my head. Of course, any treatment would be up to your doctor and you on weighing the harm (decreased deep breaths) vs how much it would actually help.

  • Patti

    I fell two days ago off the sidewalk and broke at least 2 ribs – not sure if more are broke as it was too painful to finish the xrays, so they could only be sure of two. Anyhow, it is the most excruciating pain I have ever felt in my life! Everything is painful, coughing, laughing, breathing etc. Peeing is even hard (I’m female btw).

    I have figured out the best thing to sleep in is a recliner. I have pillows on both sides of me so I am in the chair tightly and can’t slump in my sleep. I found that without the pillows I would slide down a bit and then the pain would jolt me awake and I would have trouble breathing for a few minutes.

    The emergency doc gave me 10mg morphine pills but it doesn’t really do much for the pain at all. And if it is doing something for the pain then it must hurt more then I think! I am thinking I will try some anti inflammatories tomorrow and see if that helps manage the pain better.

    I’m so ready for the pain to go away, I’m so tired of it ugghh

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

      Patti, I’m so sorry. It’s going to take some time. Hope your okay.

  • tina

    i did not know that about wrapping the ribs. my husband has a cracked or possibly bruised rib and we have been wrapping it and leaving the wrap on for about fifteen to thirty minutes at a time about three times a day and he leaves it off when he is sleeping. no problems with deep breaths but the area is still tender and causes pain when coughing and sometimes laughing.

    • http://www.thesurvivaldoctor.com James Hubbard, M.D., M.P.H.

      Tina, Please be kind and don’t tell him jokes.

  • Tammi

    This is awesome information at just the right time. My husband just broke 3 ribs in a fall and I have been scouring everything I can read about this.

    • http://www.thesurvivaldoctor.com James Hubbard, M.D., M.P.H.

      Thanks, Tammi. Three ribs. That sounds painful.

  • jamie

    I broke 2 ribs years ago from coughing due to bronchitis. To this day it seems as though one of the ribs shifts and then stabs me. I have to push in the area a couple of times to move the rib back into position. Needless to say, this was not a fun fracture to deal with.

    • http://www.thesurvivaldoctor.com James Hubbard, M.D., M.P.H.

      Jamie, no, it doesn’t sound like fun. Thanks for sharing, though.