How painful is a broken rib?
October 31, 2005 11:20 PM   Subscribe

Anyone ever break a rib? How painful is that, exactly?

I was recently ill with a pretty severe cough and toward the end of it, developed a pain in my ribcage. It feels mechanical in nature -- there's something physically wrong there -- but i brushed off notions that it was a broken rib, mainly because my understanding was that a broken rib was extremely painful. this has only been somewhat painful. but now it's gone on for quite some time and i'm thinking about an x-ray.

so the question is, for anyone that's had a broken rib, just how painful do those tend to be? i'm not looking for medical advice, just some anecdotal info. I'm going to get an x-ray regardless. probably.
posted by Hat Maui to Health & Fitness (28 answers total)
I probably broke someone's rib once, playing Stupidity, the game of flipping coins and punching each other.

The next morning:
"Dude, I think your broke my rib. It hurts to breathe!"
Me: "Really? Sweet!"
"Yeah, it's fucking awesome."

(No, the last line wasn't sarcasm.)

I've never had one personally, but my understanding is that they're not necessarily extremely painful, and that when it's not poking out of your skin or into your lung or something there's basically nothing to do but let it heal. Someone else who knows more can probably chime in.

You should check to make sure it really is a broken rib rather than letting it sit, I guess.
posted by TheOnlyCoolTim at 11:31 PM on October 31, 2005

I had one a while back (at least the doctor supposed so, and that was from falling). The pain really varies AFAIK according to the structure of the fracture. Anecdotal evidence: Mine was only painful (and not really bad so) with coughing, and sleeping on that side.

The thing to note about broken ribs (again, anecdotal) is that two doctors told me that nothing really is done about them nowadays (unless the broken rib was crushing your lung, in which case I think you would notice). The advice I was given was to just take painkillers if I needed. It took about 3 weeks for mine to stop hurting at night, so it probably was not too bad.

But, as always, if you can, ask a doctor to make sure it is not something else.
posted by keijo at 11:34 PM on October 31, 2005

Cracked a rib on two separate occasions. It's a dull pain most of the time, but hurts like hell when you cough, laugh, or (horrors!) sneeze. Get it checked out, but for me the the best treatment was to wear a wrap for support and wait for it to heal.
posted by LordSludge at 11:38 PM on October 31, 2005

I can't tell you about a broken rib. However, after my physio appointment on Friday, I suffered pain around my sternum. I just did a simple stretch before bed and suddenly experienced a pain so severe that I couldn't move from my seat on the couch. After 15 minutes or so, I felt much better, but the area is still tender.

When I went to physio today, I explained the problem. My physio said that, due to work on my back, my spine alignment might have changed a bit, affecting my ribs. Since the ribs link to your spine and the sternum as a double joint, I stretched the ligaments when I stretched my arms. She said this probably put things back where they should be.

As for the pain, when my physio explored the area around my sternum and breast bone, I winced quite a bit. It feels kinda bruised and very tender, although nothing like it did on Friday. (I've gone through childbirth and, while this was nothing like that, it did hurt like crazy.)

Anyway, I am not a doctor and cannot offer medical advice, but my community health nurse always tells me that pain is always an indication that you should see a doctor. I wouldn't go for an x-ray without seeing a doctor, since you might have stretched a ligament or something the way I did. Self-diagnosis may send you down the wrong path and result in procedures you don't need to get well.
posted by acoutu at 11:56 PM on October 31, 2005

I tore whatever's between ribs (ligaments?) once during a bike accident. Hurt like fucking hell especially when I laughed, coughed, bent over, stretched, or breathed deeply. Lasted about 8 weeks.
posted by Manhasset at 12:29 AM on November 1, 2005

I cracked a rib once and it hurt a lot for the first 24 hrs or so, then with the help of aspirin the constant pain went away, but I couldn't touch it (or near it) without screaming like a weakling for a good few weeks.
posted by jontyjago at 1:50 AM on November 1, 2005

Cracked rib here, too. Pretty much what jontyjago said. I've heard that you can break your own ribs -- the diaphragm is one of the strongest muscles in the body. In my case it was, uh, gravitational in nature, aided by certain social lubricants. I was in college, so I had to walk all over campus with this -- for a while I had to sort of limp to avoid stretching the tender spot.
posted by dhartung at 2:35 AM on November 1, 2005

It could just as easily be a ligament or something like that, for a while I had some pain a few inches to the left of my sternum and my chiropractor said that was the most likely reason. It eventually healed up well enough to leave only occasional twinges.
posted by biffa at 3:33 AM on November 1, 2005

Yeah, show it to someone who knows, 'cause it could be soft tissue instead. And get the X ray, because you'd think if it was broken in two places, it could move or something.

I've broken ribs a couple of times, I used a rib belt. Modern medical science no longer recommends a rib belt, they say you won't breathe deeply and clean your lungs, and you'll get pneumonia. I was aware of the risk, and I just made it a point to cough once in a while. Haven't broken a rib since they banned them, so haven't been forced to make the moral decision involved.
posted by deep_cover at 4:46 AM on November 1, 2005

I broke two ribs in a motorcycle accident along with shattering my collarbone. The ribs hurt more and longer than the shoulder, which felt fine once they operated on it. I couldn't lay down flat because of the ribs and spent a couple of weeks sleeping in a recliner.

But perhaps the most painful part of the whole experience was when I sneezed. Incredible.
posted by tommasz at 5:01 AM on November 1, 2005

I've broken two ribs (Thai boxing). It wasnt that painful, but for about a week it was difficult getting out of bed in the mornings. Six weeks later I was back training again.
posted by the cuban at 5:06 AM on November 1, 2005

What frosted my pumpkin when I cracked a rib or 2 was that I had to pay (no health insurance) for xrays and ER treatment only to hear that, as mentioned, they no longer wrap your ribcage lest you get pneumonia. I guess I would have felt better if my hard-earned money had gone for a little gauze. Hurt enough to keep me from physical labor for a couple of weeks. I was warned that my ribs would hurt in wet weather for years. Hasn't happened. But pray you won't sneeze. If I suspect I've broken a rib again, I will check for any sign of punctured lung or flesh, and if none, avoid expensive xrays. YMMV.
posted by Hobgoblin at 5:21 AM on November 1, 2005

Broken ribs themselves aren't that bad, but coughing with one is the pits of hell.

I also used a rib belt, and it helped tremendously, though I wasn't aware of the threat of pneumonia. I was advised repeatedly that there was nothing that could be done for them other than that. It seems like it took weeks to heal, but surely the coughing wasn't helping much.
posted by FortyT-wo at 5:25 AM on November 1, 2005

I, too, have fractured my rib. The only additional info I can add is that when I went to get an x-ray immediately after the injury, nothing showed up. It takes a few weeks I believe for evidence of the break to appear (especially when they are hairline fractures like mine was).
posted by Taken Outtacontext at 6:18 AM on November 1, 2005

It's one of those injuries where you won't feel it for most of the day and then you'll turn a certain way or lift something and all of a sudden you'll remember it. At least that was my experience.

They gave me a girdle type thing that made it hurt even more.
posted by bondcliff at 6:19 AM on November 1, 2005

I cracked a rib playing paintball. Initially, I thought I just got the wind knocked out of me, so I went to sit down, then decided to change into street clothes. When I bent down to untie my shoes, it felt like someone was tattooing my liver; very sharp pain, enough to elicit an involuntary moan. Over the following weeks, I had a persistent dull ache, and had to learn to restrict my motion to avoid the sharp, stabby pains. Eventually, the ache subsided, and I once again became the man you see before you now.
posted by jimfl at 6:56 AM on November 1, 2005

I was warned that my ribs would hurt in wet weather for years. Hasn't happened.

Dunno how old you are, but the "human barometer" effect on my back (frx coccyx and L1 - L4, compressed everything darn near up to my shoulders) is much more noticeable since I've gotten on the high side of 40.
posted by alumshubby at 6:58 AM on November 1, 2005

I broke four of 'em once. One, in two places. I can say, without blowing things out of proportion, that it hurts like a bitch just to be alive with broken ribs.

Of course, my break was a traumatic one (a fall into a seven foot window well, broken by the well wall itself -- a 200lb weight dropped on a 1cm thick rolled-top of a 7ft tall wall of aluminum).

If the doctor confirms a broken rib, they won't wrap it (or give you any girdle-like appliance) these days. At least, not if they're educated. ;) Instead, they'll give you this device that exercises your chest/ribs/lungs (an "inspirometer", or something to that effect) -- it seems that, back in the old days of wrapping broken ribs, lots of patients were getting pneumonia. You see, when you have a broken rib, it hurts to inhale fully, and wrapping the chest was thought to relieve pain by preventing you from inhaling enough to make it hurt. Sure enough, it does, but it also prevents you from inhaling enough to keep the inner recesses of your lungs exposed to air. Without that air, fluid can collect, and pneumonia can set in. So this torture device is used to help you breathe in slowly and completely, and you're supposed to use it every waking hour of the first 3-4 days, then every few hours, then 2-3 times a day, etc...

If you're lucky, they'll throw in some Vicodin, maybe give you a shot of Demerol before you leave.
posted by Merdryn at 8:14 AM on November 1, 2005

I pulled a muscle while coughing when sick a couple of weeks ago. Didn't break a rib, but for the first couple of days it sure *felt* like it; when I'd cough it felt like I'd been stabbed - but ONLY when I coughed.

Two weeks later, its now down to a minor throb, and should be gone completely by next week.
posted by mrbill at 8:28 AM on November 1, 2005

replies about sneezing and coughing are correct. much pain; this kind of pain is, imho, the best way to self diagnose a broken rib. i went at least 6 weeks without sneezing... serious. you will learn to control this reflex.

however, in my case i was advised against "wrapping" as there is some risk of lung infection that comes from the inability to cough during broken rib convalescence and wrapping tends to exacerbate this.
posted by RockyChrysler at 10:24 AM on November 1, 2005

What sucks is a cracked rib will heal, but if you tore cartilage away from them it will never patch itself. If that is what happened - you should have seen a doctor by now - than I'd wait until it heals and really focus on doing abdominal work.
I've done both. Cracked ribs in fights (street and against a thai boxer - probably same way cuban did), and parachuting and separated the cartilage playing rugby.
On the whole, I'd rather break them.
posted by Smedleyman at 11:01 AM on November 1, 2005

I cracked 2 ribs (back and front) in a rock climbing fall at the beach in Feb. 2004. It hurt like hell for at least 2 months and faded to a dull ache that lasted about 6 months more. I thought I would get relief wrapping it in the first couple of days, but my doctor said that was a bad idea and I should just let it heal naturally. So I did.
posted by Lynsey at 11:18 AM on November 1, 2005

My father ripped the cartilage off the end of two ribs (stacked on the same side) coughing. His doctor said this kind of injury is common, especially among pregant women. Apparently the pain is way worse than breaking them or even hip surgery or a compound fracture of the leg (my dad's seen the inside of a hospital on more than a few occasions).

And oh ya, there isn't anything they can do but write you a big ol' prescription for pain killers. Make sure you get some good stuff and that they vary it a bit so you don't get addicted :). The pain will eventually subside until you lean the wrong way or something and your in agony for a day or two again.

On preview: Ditto Smedleyman.
posted by Mitheral at 11:33 AM on November 1, 2005

I cracked a rib after falling about ten years ago. It was a dull ache for about six weeks. It aches occasionally even now.
posted by solid-one-love at 11:41 AM on November 1, 2005

what's a physio, acoutu?
posted by scarabic at 1:31 PM on November 1, 2005

"Physio" is generally shorthand for "physiotherapist."
posted by solid-one-love at 1:55 PM on November 1, 2005

If you have a cracked rib, you are looking at 6-8 weeks of pain/discomfort, so don't be surprised that the pain isn't going away/getting better.

Unless you start having breathing problems, or get a chest infection (due to not breathing deep enough because of pain), there is no point in getting an x-ray as rib fractures are rarely visible on a plain x-ray and there's no point in forking out big bucks for a CT scan when the only treatment is time.

take your regular over the counter pain releivers and sit it out.
posted by mule at 3:09 PM on November 1, 2005

I did something similar coughing, separated my rib from my sternum or something. Thought I was dying, couldn't breathe. Not a cool thing when you're really stoned.

Gave up smoking bongs soon after that. The remedy was painkillers, and I second the never sneeze option.
posted by bdave at 5:55 AM on November 3, 2005

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