Rib fractures: Management and treatment options

a person holding their abdominal area in pain


In this article:

  • Rib fractures are common, but in some cases they can cause serious complications.

  • Treatment options range from pain management to surgery.

  • The Rib Fracture Clinic at Swedish specializes in treatment of all types of these fractures.

Rib fractures are the most common chest injury, accounting for 10 to 15 percent of all traumatic injuries in the U.S. Nearly 300,000 people are seen each year for rib fractures, and 7 percent of this population will require hospitalization for medical, pain and/ or surgical management.

Rib fractures can cause serious complications including bleeding in the chest (hemothorax), collapse of the lung (pneumothorax), or fluid accumulation in the chest (pleural effusion), just to name a few. Rib fractures may also contribute to the development of a lung infection or pneumonia. These problems are important to diagnose following chest trauma and even more importantly, when present, they need to be closely monitored during the early post-traumatic period.

Pain is the most common symptom that people experience with rib fractures. It will often take upwards of six weeks and sometimes up to six months for the fractures to heal and for patients to become entirely pain-free. This pain results mostly from the movement of the broken ends: with each motion or deep breath, the unstable ends move and pain ensues.

Pain management is a top priority in the care of patients with rib fractures. Poor pain management renders the patients unable to effectively breathe deeply, placing them at risk for collapse of the air sacs in their lungs (atelectasis) and at higher risk for infection in their lung (pneumonia). Additionally, when people are in pain they eat less, they cannot sleep well and they are unable to move freely or participate in their normal activities, including work.

Rib fractures are most often uncomplicated, which means that the fractured rib or ribs are broken in one place. These uncomplicated fractures are usually not displaced, allowing for realignment during the healing process and minimal movement when breathing and moving. These fractures can usually be managed conservatively with simple pain control and time.

However, at times, the fractures are considered complicated either because multiple breaks are present on each fractured rib, causing the broken segments to be unstable, or the broken ends are severely displaced. These complicated fractured ribs are often more unstable during activity and breathing and will likely take longer to heal; some may never heal normally.

3D reconstruction of fractured ribs before surgery

3D reconstruction of fractured ribs before surgery

Historically, good pain control and the use of a stabilizing elastic binder (to wrap around the chest) have been the only treatment options for most rib fractures. These treatment options continue to be utilized and are effective for many patients with uncomplicated rib fractures.

For more complicated rib fractures, we may also consider early surgical intervention to stabilize the unstable and/or displaced fractures. This is accomplished by screwing a small, customized, titanium plate across the fractured segment(s) of the rib to achieve surgical fixation (stabilization); these plates realign the ribs and speed up the healing process.

After rib plating surgery

Images from after rib plating surgery

After rib plating surgery

Swedish Thoracic Surgery has a specific clinic that is designed to care for patients with newly fractured ribs, both complicated and uncomplicated. A multidisciplinary team of care providers, including thoracic surgeons, an interventional pulmonologist and nurse practitioners, are available to evaluate the injury and make a clinical treatment plan that is individually tailored to each patient’s needs. This clinical plan includes consideration of the patient’s age, their underlying health, the severity of the fractures and the specific needs in their life. Our team is equipped to work closely with patients and caregivers to prevent potential and unnecessary post-traumatic complications and guide them to a quicker recovery and earlier return to productive and normal activities of daily living.

Find a doctor

If you have questions about rib fractures, contact the Swedish Rib Fracture Clinic. We can accommodate both in-person and virtual visits.

Whether you require an in-person visit or want to consult a doctor virtually, you have options. Swedish Virtual Care connects you face-to-face with a nurse practitioner who can review your symptoms, provide instruction and follow up as needed. If you need to find a doctor, you can use our provider directory.

Join our Patient and Family Advisory Council.

This information is not intended as a substitute for professional medical care. Always follow your health care professional's instructions.

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About the Author

Whether you're interested in physical fitness, an athlete looking for performance tips, or it's time for a full or partial replacement of knees, shoulders or hips, the Swedish Orthopedics and Sports Medicine Team is committed to providing you with expert advice on how to prevent injury, plan for physical activity and recover from orthopedic procedures. Our mission is to help you live the active lifestyle you want.

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