Updated June 25, 2018
- Rib fractures are common but painful.
- Becoming pain-free can take from six weeks to six months.
It’s a lot easier to crack or break a rib than to recover from it.
Rib injuries are extremely common, occurring when the chest suffers trauma, whether from a fall, a blow or a traffic accident. In fact, more than 93 percent of the people wearing seatbelts who suffered serious injuries in an accident cracked or broke their ribs.
By themselves, broken ribs usually aren’t life-threatening, but they can cause complications with the respiratory system, soft tissues, internal bleeding and other issues.
But most of all, they are painful.
Treating — and living with — rib pain
When Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., suffered five broken ribs in 2017 in a bizarre scuffle with his neighbor, his aide told reporters, “It is not clear exactly how soon he will return to work, as the pain is considerable as is the difficulty in getting around…”
Pain is the most notable symptom of a broken rib. It can take from six weeks to six months for the fractures to heal and for a patient to be free of pain. The pain results mostly from the movement of the broken ends of the rib and can recur with each motion or deep breath.
The serious effect on quality of life is why health care providers make it a top priority to help their patients manage pain.
Pain can make it hard for patients to breathe deeply, which places them at risk for collapse of the air sacs in their lungs or pneumonia — infections in their lungs. Also, people in pain eat less, have trouble sleeping and are often unable to move freely or participate in their normal activities, including work.
Types of rib fractures
Most rib fractures are considered uncomplicated because the ribs are broken in one place. They are the easiest to heal and treat because they don’t need to be displaced and realigned. They usually heal normally with the passage of time and management of pain.
But rib fractures are considered complicated if the rib is broken in multiple places, causing segments to be displaced, or when the ends are severely displaced. Such fractures are often less stable and will take longer to heal. Some may never heal fully.
Fractured ribs, especially uncomplicated fractures, have traditionally been treated with pain medication and sometimes, by wrapping a stabilizing elastic binder around the chest. This treatment continues to be effective for most patients with uncomplicated fractures.
More complicated rib fractures may require surgery to stabilize segments or ends. A surgeon may screw a small titanium plate across a fracture to stabilize and realign the ribs and speed up the healing process.
If you’re suffering pain around the rib cage or breathing with difficulty after falling or sustaining an injury, see a physician as soon as you can. You can find specialized help at the Swedish Rib Fracture Clinic. We have a multidisciplinary team of care providers including thoracic surgeons, an interventional pulmonologist, and nurse practitioners who are available to evaluate the injury and make a clinical treatment plan that is individually tailored to each patient’s needs. Our team is equipped to work closely with patients and caregivers to prevent complications and guide them to a quicker recovery.
This information is not intended as a substitute for professional medical care. Always follow your health care professional's instructions.