Rib pain can make even the simplest actions feel like an ordeal.
Whether it’s coughing, breathing deeply or simply touching your chest, the everyday movements you usually take for granted can turn into actions you dread when you're nursing a rib injury.
While it’s not a pleasant experience, for most, the pain caused by a rib injury improves within a few weeks.
But if time passes and the pain continues, or you develop other symptoms, see a doctor - you may have a serious injury or complications that need medical attention.
When to worry about rib pain
Pain from a broken or bruised rib usually heals by itself over time. However, you should speak to a doctor if:
- you’re still experiencing pain after a few weeks
- you’re coughing up yellow or green mucus
- you’ve got a high temperature (38C or above)
Get medical help immediately if:
- your chest pain is getting worse
- you have pain in your tummy or shoulder
- you’re coughing up blood
- you have shortness of breath and it’s getting worse
- the pain was caused by a serious accident
Finding out what’s wrong
A doctor should be able to tell if your pain is most likely due to bruised or broken ribs based on the details you give them and by examining your chest.
They may ask you to take some deep breaths and cough to check for signs of pain. They may also press on areas of your chest to check for tenderness or swelling.
If you have complications due to a rib injury the doctor may run some imaging tests, including:
- a chest X-ray - this may pick up rib fractures and complications of a rib fracture
- a CT scan - this can show rib fractures more clearly than a chest X-ray as the scanner takes X-rays from a variety of angles
- an MRI scan - this can detect more subtle rib injuries
- a bone scan - this is an effective method of detecting small cracks (known as stress fractures) in the ribs
Complications of a broken rib
If you’ve broken a rib, it’s possible to develop complications. These tend to happen when your internal organs are damaged by the sharp end of a broken rib or when rib pain prevents you from breathing or coughing as normal.
These complications can include:
- a chest infection - rib pain makes it difficult to breathe deeply and cough properly, so mucus may get stuck in the chest and this can lead to an infection
- pneumonia - when the lungs get inflamed
- a collapsed lung (pneumothorax) - when an injury to the chest wall causes air to become trapped between the lungs and chest wall, causing the lungs to collapse partially or completely
- haemothorax - this is similar to pneumothorax, but blood becomes trapped around the lung (instead of air)
How to help your recovery
You can help your recovery by avoiding certain actions, such as lifting heavy objects, straining yourself or playing sports. Most important of all is to give your body the time it needs to recover naturally.
And if your symptoms suggest that you have an uncomplicated injury (that doesn’t need medical attention), take a look at this article for some additional ways to help you recover from a rib injury.
Broken or bruised ribs [Internet]. nhs.uk. 2020 [cited 29 January 2020]. Available here.
Fever in adults [Internet]. Nhsinform.scot. 2020 [cited 29 January 2020]. Available here.
Tidy D. Rib Injuries | Fractured, Broken & Bruised Ribs | Pain Relief and Treatment [Internet]. Patient.info. 2020 [cited 29 January 2020]. Available here.
Broken ribs - Diagnosis and treatment - Mayo Clinic [Internet]. Mayoclinic.org. 2020 [cited 29 January 2020]. Available here.
Rib fractures - Symptoms, diagnosis and treatment | BMJ Best Practice [Internet]. Bestpractice.bmj.com. 2020 [cited 29 January 2020]. Available here.
Overview of pneumonia - Summary of relevant conditions | BMJ Best Practice [Internet]. Bestpractice.bmj.com. 2020 [cited 29 January 2020]. Available here.