Broken or bruised ribs

Fractured or bruised ribs are usually caused by a blow to the chest and normally take about three to six weeks to heal. Both are treated with painkillers.

Broken (fractured) or bruised ribs are usually caused by a fall or blow to the chest, or occasionally by severe coughing. They can be very painful, but will normally improve within about three to six weeks.

If you think you've injured your ribs, you'll often be able to look after yourself at home. Ribs can't be easily splinted or supported like other bones, so they're usually left to heal naturally.

Broken and bruised ribs are generally treated in the same way, so it's not usually necessary to have an X-ray to determine what your exact injury is.

You generally only need to seek medical advice if things get worse or don't improve, or if you were injured during a serious accident.

How can I tell if I've injured my ribs?

A broken or bruised rib will feel very painful, particularly when you breathe in.

You may feel you can only take shallow breaths, but it's important you try to breathe normally to help clear mucus from your lungs and prevent chest infections.

You may also have some swelling or tenderness in your chest and bruising to the skin.

Caring for your injury at home

In most cases, you can take care of broken or bruised ribs at home. While your injury heals, pain relief is very important, as it will hurt every time you breathe in or cough. Taking shallow breaths and not coughing to avoid pain will only put you at risk of a chest infection.

You can look after yourself by:

  • regularly taking over-the-counter painkillers , such as paracetamol and ibuprofen (aspirin shouldn't be given to children aged under 16) – follow the dosage instructions on the packet
  • holding an ice pack to your chest regularly during the first few days to reduce the pain and swelling – a bag of frozen peas wrapped in a tea towel will also work
  • resting periodically – take time off work if you need to, especially if your work involves physical labour or the pain is severe
  • keeping mobile between rest periods – walking around and moving your shoulders occasionally can help with your breathing and help clear any mucus from your lungs
  • holding a pillow against your chest if you need to cough
  • carrying out breathing exercises – take 10 slow, deep breaths every hour, letting your lungs inflate fully each time, to help keep your lungs clear

Don't wrap a bandage tightly around your chest, as this will stop your lungs expanding properly. Try to avoid lying down or staying still for long periods. It may help to sleep more upright for the first few nights.

Avoid straining and lifting heavy objects until you're feeling better, as you may injure yourself further and take longer to recover. If you smoke, stopping may also help your recovery. Find information to help you stop smoking.

When to see a doctor

See your doctor if your pain hasn't started to improve within a few weeks. They can prescribe stronger painkillers if necessary and refer you to hospital if they feel you need further treatment.

Seek medical help immediately if you develop any signs of a more serious problem, such as:

The above symptoms may indicate a chest infection or may mean a broken rib has damaged your lung, causing the lung to collapse (pneumothorax) or injuring another organ, such as the liver or spleen.

Go straight to your nearest emergency department for an assessment if your injury was the result of a serious accident, such as a vehicle collision.

Common questions about broken or bruised ribs

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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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