How to diagnose and treat bruised ribs
The ribs are flexible bones that make up the rib cage. These bones protect important organs in the chest, including the heart, lungs, and spleen.
It is essential to have a doctor assess any rib injury to ensure that it is not severe and has not damaged internal organs.
A person with a bruised rib may have pain at the site of the injury and trouble breathing.
Image credit: amyselleck
Symptoms of a bruised rib include:
- trouble breathing
- pain at the site of the injury
- pain with movements like breathing or coughing
- muscle spasms around the rib cage
- irregular appearance of the rib cage
- feeling or hearing a crack at the time of the injury, if a rib has broken
The skin at the site of the injury may bruise as a result of ruptured blood vessels. When these vessels rupture, blood can pool in surrounding tissues.
However, the bones may bruise without any visible injury or bruising on the skin.
The most common cause of a bruised rib is trauma to the chest.
This trauma can result from falls, sports injuries, motor vehicle accidents, crush injuries, or assaults, for example. People with osteoporosis can fracture a rib by having a violent coughing episode.
Trauma to the ribs or chest can also cause soft tissue injuries involving the muscles and cartilage. For example, forceful twisting or coughing can strain or pull the intercostal muscles, which allow for the flexibility of the rib cage.
Also, pregnant women can be more susceptible to rib fracture and injury, particularly in the third trimester, due to the growing uterus.
To help diagnose a bruised rib, a doctor may perform a physical examination to assess the area.
To diagnose a bruised rib or rib fracture, a doctor will take detailed notes about the injury and the aftermath, including the person's symptoms.
They will also perform a physical examination to assess the site of the injury and listen to the heart and lungs. Evaluating a person's breathing is essential.
The doctor may perform a chest X-ray with emphasis on rib detail to see if a rib bone is broken. However, bruising does not always show up on X-rays.
A person might undergo other tests to differentiate a fracture from a muscle or soft tissue injury.
Treatments, and how long will it take to heal?
Doctors do not treat bruised or broken ribs in the same manner as a broken arm or leg because rib bones cannot be cast or splinted.
Doctors typically leave bruised or broken ribs to heal on their own. However, in special circumstances, such as when there are multiple fractures or breaks in the rib cage, doctors recommend surgical intervention.
Otherwise, the primary goal of treatment for a bruised or broken rib is pain relief.
If the pain is severe, a person may not be able to breathe as deeply, which can cause a buildup of mucus in the lungs.
Ways to treat bruised and fractured ribs at home include:
- applying an ice pack wrapped in a cloth to help reduce inflammation
- taking over-the-counter pain relievers and anti-inflammatory medications
- avoiding any activity that can make the pain worse
A person can try gently stretching the muscles in the shoulders and chest wall, but it is important to avoid movements that make the pain worse.
Usually, rib injuries heal on their own. Bruised and broken ribs heal in a similar way and typically get better within 3–6 weeks. If a person is not feeling better in a few weeks, they should contact their doctor, who may request more testing.
To promote healing from a bruised or broken rib, encourage the child to rest, use cold and hot packs, give pain relievers as directed, and suggest gentle stretching.
Contact the doctor if the child has a fever, trouble breathing, abdominal pain, or dizziness or lightheadedness.
When to see a doctor
If symptoms of a fever or a worsening cough are present, a person should talk to a doctor.
Consult a healthcare provider if these symptoms are present:
- shortness of breath
- worsening pain in the chest or abdomen in the days or weeks after the injury
- a fever
- a new or worsening cough
Any of these symptoms could indicate a potentially severe condition.
Also, see a doctor if there is no general improvement after a few weeks.
A bruised rib usually results from an injury such as a fall or a blow to the chest, which may happen while playing sports, for example. Rib fractures occur in the same way.
Bruised ribs are often painful, but over-the-counter pain relievers and ice packs can help.
The bruising may take several weeks to heal. If symptoms have not improved within a few weeks, contact the doctor, who may request further testing. A bruised or broken rib can sometimes affect lung health.