Broken (fractured) or bruised ribs are usually caused by a fall or blow to the chest, or occasionally by severe coughing. They can be very painful, but will normally improve within about three to six weeks.
If you think you've injured your ribs, you'll often be able to look after yourself at home. Ribs can't be easily splinted or supported like other bones, so they're usually left to heal naturally.
Broken and bruised ribs are generally treated in the same way, so it's not usually necessary to have an X-ray to determine what your exact injury is.
You generally only need to seek medical advice if things get worse or don't improve, or if you were injured during a serious accident. See When to see a doctor, below, for more information.
How can I tell if I've injured my ribs?
A broken or bruised rib will feel very painful, particularly when you breathe in.
You may feel you can only take shallow breaths, but it's important you try to breathe normally to help clear mucus from your lungs and prevent chest infections.
You may also have some swelling or tenderness in your chest and bruising to the skin.
Caring for your injury at home
In most cases, you can take care of broken or bruised ribs at home. While your injury heals, pain relief is very important, as it will hurt every time you breathe in or cough. Taking shallow breaths and not coughing to avoid pain will only put you at risk of a chest infection.
You can look after yourself by:
- regularly taking over-the-counter painkillers, such as paracetamol and ibuprofen (aspirin shouldn't be given to children aged under 16) – follow the dosage instructions on the packet
- holding an ice pack to your chest regularly during the first few days to reduce the pain and swelling – a bag of frozen peas wrapped in a tea towel will also work
- resting periodically – take time off work if you need to, especially if your work involves physical labour or the pain is severe
- keeping mobile between rest periods – walking around and moving your shoulders occasionally can help with your breathing and help clear any mucus from your lungs
- holding a pillow against your chest if you need to cough
- carrying out breathing exercises – take 10 slow, deep breaths every hour, letting your lungs inflate fully each time, to help keep your lungs clear
Don't wrap a bandage tightly around your chest, as this will stop your lungs expanding properly. Try to avoid lying down or staying still for long periods. It may help to sleep more upright for the first few nights.
Avoid straining and lifting heavy objects until you're feeling better, as you may injure yourself further and take longer to recover. If you smoke, stopping may also help your recovery. Get help to stop smoking.
When to see a doctor
See your GP if your pain hasn't started to improve within a few weeks. They can prescribe stronger painkillers if necessary and refer you to hospital if they feel you need further treatment.
Seek medical help immediately if you develop any signs of a more serious problem, such as:
The above symptoms may indicate a chest infection or may mean a broken rib has damaged your lung, causing the lung to collapse (pneumothorax) or injuring another organ, such as the liver or spleen.
Go straight to your nearest accident and emergency (A&E) department for an assessment if your injury was the result of a serious accident, such as a vehicle collision.