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. Occasionally, rib injuries can lead to serious lung problems.
If you think you've injured your ribs as a result of a minor injury, you will often be able to care for this injury at home. Ribs can't be splinted like other bones, so they should be left to heal naturally.
Rib injuries are treated in the same way, even if the ribs are broken or just bruised (bruising means injury to the muscles surrounding the ribs). This means a chest X-ray is usually not necessary.
The exception is if the injury has resulted from a major vehicle collision, a fall from a height or a crush injury. In this case, you should go straight to your nearest accident and emergency department for an assessment.
This page focuses on the care of a minor rib injury. It explains the following:
how you can tell if you've injured your ribs
caring for your injury at home
when to see a doctor
'How can I tell if I've injured my ribs?'
A broken or bruised rib will feel painful every time you breathe in. You may feel you can only take shallow breaths, but it's important you try to breathe normally and allow your lungs to expand fully (see below).
You may also have swelling or tenderness around the injured area, and bruising to the skin.
Caring for your injury at home
You may need to take time off work, especially if your work involves physical labour or the pain is severe.
Pain relief is really important, as it will hurt every time you breathe in or cough. Taking shallow breaths and avoiding coughing will only put you at risk of a chest infection.
You can control the pain by :
regularly taking over-the-counter painkilllers, such as paracetamol and ibuprofen (note that aspirin shouldn't be given to children aged under 16) – follow the dosage instructions on the packet
holding an ice pack to your chest to reduce the pain and swelling – try a bag of frozen peas wrapped in a tea towel
supporting your chest with a pillow if you need to cough
Try to breathe deeply and let your lungs inflate fully. Regular breathing exercises, such as 10 very deep breaths every hour, can help prevent infection.
Don't wrap a bandage tightly around your chest, as this will stop your lungs expanding properly.
It's really important not to smoke when you're recovering from a rib injury. Get help stopping smoking.
Your rib injury should have healed within three to six weeks.
When to see a doctor
Seek medical help immediately if you have any of the following symptoms:
shortness of breath
increasing chest pain
pain in the abdomen or shoulder
cough or coughing up blood stained sputum
fever – a temperature of 38C (100.4F) or above
Your GP can prescribe you stronger painkillers if necessary, and will refer you to hospital if they feel you need further medical treatment.
The above symptoms may indicate a chest infection, or may mean a broken rib has damaged your lung, causing the lung to collapse (known as a pneumothorax).
To check for these problems and to see if there is any damage to the organs in your abdomen, you may need an X-ray, ultrasound scan or CT scan. Treatment from a cardiothoracic surgeon is rare and only for serious injuries with complications.
X-ray showing several fractured ribs (orange, centre left)
Read about A&E departments and other emergency services available in the such as minor injury units or emergency contraception