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4th February, 20203 min read

Do I have a broken or bruised rib?

Medical reviewer:Healthily's medical team
Author:Tomas Duffin
Last reviewed: 04/02/2020
Medically reviewed

All of Healthily's articles undergo medical safety checks to verify that the information is medically safe. View more details in our safety page, or read our editorial policy.

It’s not always easy to tell the difference between a bruised or broken rib.

Both injuries can make your chest feel tender to touch and both can cause pain on breathing in and out.

However, there are ways to determine if your rib is bruised or broken. Read on to discover what they are.

What is a broken rib?

A broken rib is also known as a rib fracture. It describes a break in 1 or more of your ribs - the bones that form the rib cage and protect your vital organs.

A broken rib happens when you receive a forceful blow to your chest, such as from a fall, an accident or a physical attack. It can even be caused by severe coughing.

Sometimes, however, this force doesn’t break your rib. Instead it bruises the rib and/or nearby muscles, producing symptoms similar to a broken rib.

Most rib injuries can be managed with self-care, but you should see a doctor or go to the emergency department immediately if you start to feel breathless or unwell.

How do you know if you have a broken rib?

It can be difficult to tell whether your rib is broken or just bruised - the symptoms are often similar. That’s why if a doctor suspects you have a rib fracture, you may need a chest X-ray to confirm the diagnosis.

Broken or bruised ribs heal in the same way and get better by themselves within 3 to 6 weeks, so there’s often no need to determine if the rib really is broken or just bruised.

Rib injury symptoms

Most, but not all, symptoms for broken and bruised ribs are the same. They include:

  • hearing or feeling a pop or crack at the time of injury - this is more common with a broken rib
  • pain in your chest - particularly when breathing in
  • tenderness and/or swelling around the affected rib(s)
  • noticeable bruising on the skin

Rib injuries: Could you be more at risk?

You may be more likely to get a broken or bruised rib if you:

  • have osteoporosis - this weakens the bones, making them fragile and more easy to break
  • have other bone diseases
  • have a persistent, heavy cough
  • play high-impact contact sports, like rugby

Children and babies are less likely to fracture a rib since their bones are more elastic. If your child - or a child you know - has a suspected cracked rib it’s important to find out what caused it.


References:

Rib fractures - Symptoms, diagnosis and treatment | BMJ Best Practice [Internet]. Bestpractice.bmj.com. 2020 [cited 28 January 2020]. Available here.

Broken or bruised ribs [Internet]. nhs.uk. 2020 [cited 28 January 2020]. Available here.

Tidy D. Rib Injuries | Fractured, Broken & Bruised Ribs | Pain Relief and Treatment [Internet]. Patient.info. 2020 [cited 28 January 2020]. Available here.

Definition of RIBS [Internet]. Merriam-webster.com. 2020 [cited 1 February 2020]. Available here.

Osteoporosis [Internet]. nhs.uk. 2020 [cited 28 January 2020]. Available here.

Broken ribs - Symptoms and causes [Internet]. Mayo Clinic. 2020 [cited 28 January 2020]. Available here.

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Important: Our website provides useful information but is not a substitute for medical advice. You should always seek the advice of your doctor when making decisions about your health.