Rib fractures can result from any significant force to the chest that is greater than what your ribs can withstand. Depending on the force, this can lead to significant discomfort and pain over the point of the rib that is damaged. Any significant blow or force can cause rib fractures. For example, car accidents, tackles playing rugby or AFL, falls.
The Anatomy of the Ribs
There are twelve ribs that join onto the sternum at the front and your spine at the back effectively encircling and forming your thorax. Hence the name rib “cage” as it goes the whole way around.
The ribs play a vital role in your body by:
- Working together as a unit to protect your vital organs, in particular your lungs and heart
- Helping you to breathe effectively! The muscles around your chest pull your rib cage open creating a larger space for your lungs to effectively expand into.
Therefore, any injury to your rib injury can lead to difficulties breathing and potential other serious complications. The main normal symptoms of rib fractures include:
- Mild to severe pain in the injured area
- Pain when you breath especially when you take a deep breath in
- Focal point tenderness over the injured rib
- Pain over the injured rib when pushing on your sternum/breastbone
- Swelling and bruising around the injured area
If you have more serious symptoms you should go to hospital immediately. Such symptoms include:
- Severe shortness of breath
- Coughing up blood
- Confusion or dizziness
- General weakness
- Nausea, vomiting or stomach pain
Should I see a health care professional such as a physio if I think I may have a fractured rib?
Yes, absolutely. Physiotherapists are trained at dealing with rib injuries and are experts at all things Musculo or skeletal. Physiotherapists here at Fixio will take a detailed history of exactly what trauma or incident caused your fracture before getting your treatment started. During the physical assessment we will also screen other joints or areas that may also be implicated. For example, we’ll look at the range of motion in your neck, shoulders and upper and lower back to get an accurate overall picture of your current function. Vitally, we will also look at your breathing, whether or not you can take a deep breath in, and your pain levels during coughing or sneezing. We will also make sure there are no other abnormalities in your chest wall by (gently!) palpating your ribs.
Depending on the mechanism of injury and clinical presentation, further scans may be necessary such as a chest X-ray or CT scan. Most rib fractures heal with relative rest, however, a small number of patients may require rib surgery in severe cases, such as:
- When there are three or more rib fractures with large displacement;
- When part of the damaged area around the ribs is not moving in conjunction with the rest of the chest wall (we call this a flail segment);
- You are experiencing uncontrollable pain, even when using pain killers;
- Severe lung damage, such as impalement or herniation of the lung.
The vast majority of stand-alone rib fractures will heal by itself with simple rest and pain medication. In general, treatment for a fractured rib will involve relative rest for a period of up to six weeks depending on the severity. In the first few days after the injury, using ice can help with pain and swelling. Unlike fractures in your arms or legs, we can’t put your ribs in a cast or sling to keep it still because ribs are so vital for breathing. This means that we give you practical advice that makes it possible to help you breathe normally, such as the best sleeping positions, sitting positions, and any pain medication you might need (in conjunction with your GP). It’s vital that you can breathe adequately with as little pain as possible to prevent secondary lung complications such as pneumonia or lung collapse.