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Common Questions - Broken or Bruised Ribs

What do doctors do for broken ribs?

Broken ribs usually get better on their own within a few weeks or months, depending on how serious the fracture is.

It can be difficult to tell how serious a rib injury is, so see your doctor or go to a hospital as soon as possible if you have injured your ribs.

If you have broken three or more broken ribs or have other serious injuries, you will likely be admitted to hospital for treatment. This may involve surgery.

If your doctor does not think you need treatment in hospital, they can help by giving you painkillers to make sure you can breathe in and out without too much pain.

Your doctor may also recommend deep breathing several times a day, with or without a special device. This can help to prevent your small airways from closing off while your ribs are healing.

How can I tell if my ribs are broken or bruised?

Most people break or bruise their ribs because of chest trauma, such as a fall, a blow to the chest or severe coughing.

It isn’t easy to tell the difference between bruised and broken ribs because both conditions can cause similar symptoms, including:

  • chest pain, especially when you breathe in, laugh, cough or sneeze
  • swelling or tenderness around the affected ribs
  • bruising on the skin

Some people may feel or hear a crack when they break their ribs, but this does not always happen.

Only imaging tests, such as a chest X-ray or CT scan can confirm if you have broken, rather than bruised, your ribs.

How can I care for bruised ribs?

Minor bruised rib injuries are usually left to heal on their own.

You can take painkillers, such as paracetamol or ibuprofen, to help you breathe and cough properly without pain. This is important because you can develop pneumonia if you don’t breathe in and out deeply while your ribs are healing.

However, avoid taking ibuprofen for 48 hours after your injury as it may slow down healing.

Other things you can do to reduce pain, clear your lungs, and help your ribs to heal include:

  • hold an ice pack (or a bag of frozen peas in a tea towel) against the affected ribs for 15-20 minutes, every two to three hours during the first few days
  • rest and take time off work as needed
  • breathe normally and cough when you need to, but hold a pillow against your chest when you cough
  • walk around and sometimes move your shoulders - this can help you breathe better and clear mucus from your lungs
  • take 10 slow, deep breaths every hour
  • try to sleep more upright for the first few nights
  • stop smoking - rib injuries can take longer to heal if you smoke

You should avoid:

  • wrapping a bandage tightly around your chest
  • lying down or staying still for a long time
  • straining yourself or lifting heavy objects
  • doing activities that make your pain worse

How can I care for broken ribs?

Less serious rib fractures are usually left to heal on their own.

Taking painkillers, such as paracetamol or ibuprofen, can help you breathe and cough properly without pain. This is important because you can develop pneumonia if you don’t breathe in and out deeply while your ribs are healing. However, avoid taking ibuprofen for 48 hours after your injury as it may slow down healing.

Other things you can do to reduce pain, clear your lungs, and help your ribs to heal include:

  • rest and take time off work as needed
  • hold an ice pack (or bag of frozen peas in a tea towel) to the affected ribs for 15-20 minutes, every two to three hours during the first few days
  • breathe normally and cough when you need to, but hold a pillow against your chest when you cough
  • walk around and move your shoulders from time to time - this can help you breathe better and clear mucus from your lungs
  • take 10 slow, deep breaths every hour
  • try to sleep more upright for the first few nights
  • stop smoking - rib injuries can take longer to heal if you smoke

You should avoid:

  • wrapping a bandage tightly around your chest
  • lying down or staying still for a long time
  • straining yourself or lifting heavy objects
  • doing activities that make your pain worse

Can you bruise a rib by coughing?

Yes. While most rib injuries are caused by a blow to the chest, severe coughing can sometimes cause bruised ribs.

Can you exercise with broken or bruised ribs?

It is best to avoid exercise and other activities that make your pain worse or that involve lifting heavy objects while your ribs are healing.

If you have broken or bruised your ribs, speak with your doctor to find out when it is safe for you to start exercising again.

How should I wrap broken ribs?

You should avoid wrapping broken ribs while they heal. Wrapping your ribs may stop your lungs from expanding properly, which can lead to pneumonia.

If you are in pain, speak with your doctor. They can advise you on the best way to manage your pain without wrapping your ribs.

How long does it take for broken ribs to heal?

Most cases of broken ribs heal on their own within a few weeks or months. The exact amount of time it takes for broken ribs to heal depends on how serious the injury is.

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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.

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