A healthy living blog from Marshfield Clinic

Broken ribs: What to do when there’s a pain in your side

Football players tackling - Broken ribs

Common causes of broken ribs are motor vehicle accidents, collisions in contact sports and falls.

Bruised and broken ribs are nothing to sneeze at. In fact, they can be painful.

The most common causes of broken ribs are motor vehicle accidents, collisions in contact sports and falls. Symptoms of broken or bruised ribs include a strong pain in your chest, particularly when you breathe in, swelling, tenderness and sometimes bruising.

“You should see a doctor if you have shortness of breath, if the pain is severe enough to interfere with daily living or if it limits your job or physical activities,” said Dr. Thomas Hunt, a Marshfield Clinic Health System urgent care physician.

Indicators of severe trauma

The fracture location and damage to several ribs triggers doctors to investigate vital organs. “Multiple rib fractures indicate high-force impact. We check for punctured lungs, bleeding or bruising,” Hunt said. “These injuries require more intensive monitoring or possibly hospitalization.”

Fracture of your lower left ribs could lead to injury to the spleen, while if your lower right ribs are broken, there’s concern for the liver. Lower posterior rib trauma flags kidney damage.

“Injury to rib number one specifically indicates severe trauma, which is associated with other internal life-threatening injuries—brain, spine, heart, lungs and pelvis,” Hunt said.

He advises that if children have broken ribs it is a sign of abuse. Children’s ribs have more flexibility and rib fractures in the absence of severe trauma are uncommon.

Only time heals

With other broken bones a cast or splint is applied, but that can do more harm with broken ribs, Hunt says.  Rib-belts or binders should not be used. This binding causes shallow breathing, which can lead to complications.

“Your best course of treatment is to control pain to ease discomfort. Every few hours, take five minutes or so of several deep breaths to avoid pneumonia or fluid collecting in your lungs,” he said.

If your pain increases or if you have shortness of breath, lightheadedness, increasing cough or fever Hunt recommends seeing a doctor.

For mild pain, he recommends taking ibuprofen and bracing the affected area with a pillow while taking deep breaths, coughing and sneezing. Continue light physical activities that do not aggravate your ribs.  In four to six weeks or longer, depending on age and pain tolerance, you can gradually return to normal activities.

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