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Rib Fracture (Broken Rib)

Your ribs are curved bones in your chest. They help protect your lungs and expand and contract when you breathe. Children's ribs bend easily and can often withstand a blow or fall. But adult ribs are more likely to break (fracture) under stress. Even coughing or a hard sneeze can fracture a rib.

Chest x-ray showing ribs highlighted in white.

When to Go to the Emergency Room (ER)

Although they can be painful, most rib fractures aren't serious. But they often make it hard to cough or breathe deeply. Get medical care right away if you have:

  • Trouble breathing.

  • Nausea, vomiting, or stomach pain with a sore or bruised rib.

  • Pain that worsens over time.

  • An injury to the chest or abdomen.

What to Expect in the ER

  • A doctor will ask about your injury and examine you carefully.

  • An x-ray of your chest will likely be taken to show any damage to ribs and certain soft tissues.

  • You may be given medication to ease your discomfort.

  • Rarely, rib fractures can cause a lung to collapse or lead to bleeding in the chest. In these cases, a tube will be inserted into the chest to reinflate the lung or drain the blood.

Follow-up

You are likely to heal in 6 to 8 weeks. Most rib fractures heal on their own with no lasting effects. Call your doctor right away if you notice any of these symptoms:

  • Increased chest pain

  • Shortness of breath

  • Fever

  • Coughing up blood

Online Medical Reviewer: Costello, Melissa W, MD, FACEP
Online Medical Reviewer: Williams, James M, MS, DO, FACEP
Last Review Date: 12/29/2011
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