Bruised ribs are usually the result of a direct blow or trauma to the chest, leading to intense pain and shallow breathing. Depending on the signs and symptoms accompanying the injury, one must apply appropriate home care and/or seek medical treatment.
Human beings have 24 ribs, twelve on each side of the chest, that protect internal organs in the chest and help in the process of breathing. Seven pairs of ribs are attached to the breastbone, while the rest do not reach it. The ribs may be bruised, broken, or separated from the breastbone when a direct blow or chest trauma occurs. Bruised ribs can cause extreme pain, but in most cases, they will completely heal.
Causes of Bruised Ribs
A bruise or a contusion can occur on the ribs, just like other parts of the body.
- An injury to the chest or upper abdominal area can result in a bruised rib. A strong impact can cause the ribs to push against the muscles surrounding them, causing a bruise to develop. This is common among athletes who play contact sports like ice hockey, football, and rugby.
- Vehicular accidents as well as other high velocity injuries can also affect the chest, causing rib bruises. Even minor accidents such as a slip on the floor or falling down from a stairway can cause bruised ribs.
- Repeated coughing bouts from pneumonia, whooping cough, or bronchitis can likewise cause rib bruises.
Chest pain coming from bruised ribs can be very painful and may take some time to heal. It is important to identify the cause of bruised ribs to help your doctor plan the treatment for you and to apply the necessary care to your injury.
Symptoms and Complications of Bruised Ribs
The symptoms that accompany bruised ribs include the following:
- Tenderness or pain when touching the injured area
- Extreme pain when taking a deep breath (known as pleuritic pain)
- Shortness of breath
- Increased intensity of pain accompanying any movement
- Sharp, constant pain on the affected rib
- Visible bruise at the site of injury
- Difficulty in sleeping on the side of injury
- If a rib fracture is present, inflammation and unbearable chest pain may be observed
Complications may occur because of rib injury, such as pneumonia and lung infection. These occur because the normal mechanism of breathing is altered, preventing the lung from fully expanded. If a rib is fractured, the sharp ends of the bone could puncture the lung. This is a serious condition, and it should be considered an emergency.
Treatments for Bruised Ribs
The immediate treatment of bruised ribs is to take a complete rest and reduce one's activities. Other ways to help heal rib bruises include:
- Taking pain killers and anti-inflammatory medications such as ibuprofen. Some doctors may prescribe narcotic pain medications.
- Application of an ice pack on the affected ribs to relieve pain.
- Taking deep breaths periodically to expand the lungs.
- Avoid binding the chest or ribs since this could increase the risk of pneumonia.
- Avoiding vigorous sports or activities that can affect the bruised ribs.
- Protecting the chest with the arm from any sudden injury.
It may take three to four weeks for bruised ribs to heal. However, severe injuries may take a lot longer to heal, extending up to about ten weeks. Consult a doctor if you experience the symptoms mentioned to avoid complication and delayed healing.
Home remedies: dos & don'ts
- Do take time off from work especially if your job requires physical activity and if the pain is severe.
- Do take your pain relievers to avoid pain when you breathe or cough. Shallow breathing and avoidance of coughing increases your risk for lung infection.
- Do apply an ice pack or a bag of peas from the freezer on the injury to reduce your swelling and pain.
- Do breathe deeply to inflate your lungs fully.
- Don't wrap your chest with a bandage - it can prevent your lungs from expanding fully.
- Don't smoke cigarettes.
- Don't do any sudden movements or heavy chores.
When to see a doctor
See a doctor immediately if you have any of these symptoms:
- You experience shortness of breath.
- Your chest pain is increasing.
- You have pain in the shoulder or abdomen.
- You have cough or fever.
These symptoms may be associated with a chest or lung infection, a broken rib, or a collapsed lung (pneumothorax). Pain medications will be prescribed by the doctor, but you will be sent to a hospital if you need further treatment. Diagnostic examinations may be done to rule out or confirm if there is any internal damage, including chest x-ray, ultrasound, or CT scan. A specialist in cardiothoracic surgery may be called for further treatment if needed.