Rib fractures usually occur after a major impact to the chest or torso, such as in a car accident, a fall from a height, or a hard knock while playing a physical contact sport. However, some diseases-such as bone cancer and osteoporosis, which make ribs (and other bones) much weaker-can cause ribs to break just from coughing more heavily or doing household chores. Although broken ribs get better on their own after a month or two, if the individual is in good health, knowing how to treat this problem at home will significantly lessen the discomfort. In rare cases, fractured ribs can puncture the lung or damage other internal organs, requiring prompt medical treatment.
Part 1 of 2: Confirming the rib injury
Step 1. Go to the doctor
When suffering a blow to the chest or torso and experiencing a lot of pain, especially when breathing deeply, the possibility of having one or more broken ribs exists. Sometimes a cracking noise is heard or felt when the rib is fractured, but not in all cases, especially if the bruise occurs where the cartilaginous points of the rib attach to the sternum. It is very important to see an orthopedist if you have these symptoms, as if the rib breaks into sharp pieces (as opposed to a crack), the chance of damage to the lungs, liver or spleen is much greater. The doctor will check the type of fracture and make the appropriate recommendations.
- Chest x-ray, MRI, bone scintigraphy, and ultrasound are some of the tools the doctor can use to better assess the rib injury.
- Your doctor will likely prescribe strong painkillers or anti-inflammatory drugs if the pain is severe, or recommend over-the-counter medications if the discomfort is bearable.
- One complication of a severe and potentially fatal rib fracture is lung perforation or collapse (atelectasis), causing pneumonia.
Step 2. Talk to a doctor and see if a corticosteroid injection is possible
If the rib fracture is stable but still causing moderate or severe discomfort, your doctor may prescribe an injection of steroid medication, especially if there is cartilage damage. Corticosteroid injection - when given close to the injury site - quickly reduces inflammation and pain, allowing the individual to breathe and have better torso mobility.
- Some of the complications of corticosteroid injections are bleeding, infection, local tendon or muscle atrophy, nerve damage, and decreased immunity.
- Another type of injection that your doctor may administer is a thoracic paravertebral block. This medication numbs the nerves in the area, blocking the sensation of pain for about six hours.
- The vast majority of people with rib fractures do not need surgical intervention, as recovery is satisfactory when adopting conservative (non-invasive) care at home.
Part 2 of 2: Treating Ribs at Home
Step 1. Do not bandage the ribs
In the past, doctors used to bandage the ribs to immobilize the area around them. This practice fell into disuse because of the risks of pulmonary infection and pneumonia that it brought. Don't try to bandage your ribs.
Step 2. Apply ice to the injured rib
Take a packet of peas or an ice pack and place it on the fractured site, leaving it for about 20 minutes every waking hour for the first two days. Then reduce to three applications of 10 to 20 minutes a day until pain and swelling are reduced. Ice causes blood vessels to constrict, reducing inflammation and making nearby nerves numb. Therapy using cold packs is suitable for all types of musculoskeletal fractures.
- Wrap the cold compress in a thin cloth before applying it over the bruise site. This reduces the risk of frostbite.
- In addition to sharp pain when breathing, there will be swelling and tenderness over the fracture site, as well as bruises on the skin around the fracture, meaning that some internal blood vessels have been injured.
Step 3. Use over-the-counter medications
Over-the-counter nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) such as ibuprofen (Advil), naproxen, or aspirin are drugs that, in the short term, help fight the pain and inflammation caused by a broken rib. NSAIDs do not stimulate healing or speed recovery, but they relieve pain and discomfort, allowing the person to continue performing basic daily activities or even returning to work after a few weeks if it is not necessary to do manual labor. Remember that NSAIDs attack the internal organs (kidneys and stomach, for example), so it is recommended not to consume them daily for a period longer than two weeks. Follow the directions on the package insert to administer the proper dosage.
- Individuals under the age of 18 should not take aspirin as it is associated with the symptoms of Reye's Syndrome.
- Alternatively, give pain relievers such as acetaminophen, but be aware that they do not fight inflammation and damage the liver even more.
Step 4. Avoid using your torso
Light exercise is good for recovery from most musculoskeletal injuries, as some movement is needed to stimulate blood circulation and healing. However, during the first few weeks, avoid strenuous activities (such as cardiovascular exercise) that speed up your heart rate and breathing, as this irritates and inflames the fractured rib. Also, minimize rotation (torsion) and lateral flexion of the torso while the rib is recovering. Walking, driving, and using the computer should be activities that are easy to perform, but avoid those that are more demanding on the body, such as housework, running, weight lifting, and playing sports until you can breathe deeply with little or no pain.
- If you need to, take a week or two of leave, especially if the work is physical or requires a lot of movement.
- Ask family and friends to help you move around the house and garden during recovery.
- Inevitably, you will need to cough or sneeze at some point after the fracture, so try to keep a soft pillow handy, holding it against your chest to lessen the impact and minimize pain.
Step 5. Adapt to your sleeping position
A rib fracture is one of the most uncomfortable bedtime injuries, especially for individuals who sleep on their stomachs, on their side, or who move a lot during sleep. The best sleeping position will be supine as it minimizes pressure on your ribs; in fact, sleeping in a more seated position or even in a comfortable reclining chair will be very helpful, at least for the first few nights, until the pain and inflammation improve. Also, support yourself in bed by placing pillows behind your back and head.
- If you need to sleep in a sitting position for more nights, don't ignore your lower back. Place a pillow under your bent knees to take pressure off your lower back and prevent lower back pain.
- To avoid unintentionally lying on your side during the night, place a body pillow on both sides for more support.
Step 6. Eat well and consume supplements
Broken bones will need nutrients in adequate amounts to recover well, so it is essential to maintain a balanced diet rich in vitamins and minerals. Focus on consuming fresh produce, whole grains, lean meats, dairy products and lots of purified water. Supplementing the diet with extra nutrients will also help speed up the recovery of the fractured rib, making calcium, magnesium, phosphorus, vitamin D and vitamin K very important.
- Cheese, yoghurt, tofu, beans, broccoli, salmon, sardines, nuts and seeds are great suppliers of minerals.
- On the other hand, avoid consuming foods that can interfere with bone healing, such as alcohol, soda, refined sugars and fast food. Furthermore, smoking also impairs the recovery time of fractured bones and any musculoskeletal injuries.
- If the rib fracture is severe, do slow breathing exercises for 10 to 15 minutes every two to three hours to avoid an infection or lung collapse.
- Avoid pushing and lifting heavy objects until you feel much better, as the risk of suffering a new injury exists, and it will take an even longer period to fully recover.
- Adequate calcium intake is important to keep bones strong. As a prevention, consume at least 1,200 mg daily through food and supplements. After suffering a bone fracture, you will need to increase your daily calcium intake.