During the physical exam, your doctor will press gently on your ribs. He or she may also listen to your lungs and watch your rib cage move as you breathe.
Your doctor may order one or more of the following imaging tests:
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- X-ray. Using low levels of radiation, X-rays are a good tool to visualize bone. But X-rays often have problems revealing fresh rib fractures, especially if the bone is merely cracked. X-rays are also useful in diagnosing a collapsed lung.
- Computerized tomography (CT). CT scans can often uncover rib fractures that X-rays might miss. Injuries to soft tissues and blood vessels are also easier to see on CT scans. This technology takes X-rays from a variety of angles and combines them to depict cross-sectional slices of your body's internal structures.
- Magnetic reasonance imaging (MRI). MRI scans can be used to look at the soft tissues and organs around the ribs to determine if there is any damage to these structures. It can also help in the detection of more subtle rib fractures. Instead of X-rays, MRI uses a powerful magnet and radio waves to produce cross-sectional images. Most MRI machines are large, tube-shaped magnets. During the test, you lie on a movable table inside the MRI machine.
- Bone scan. This technique is good for viewing stress fractures, where a bone is cracked after repetitive trauma — such as long bouts of coughing. During a bone scan, a small amount of radioactive material is injected into your bloodstream. It collects in the bones, particularly in places where a bone is healing, and is detected by a scanner.
- Eiff MP, et al. Fracture Management for Primary Care. 3rd ed. Philadelphia, Pa.: Saunders Elsevier; 2012. http://www.clinicalkey.com. Accessed Oct. 18, 2013.
- Karlson KA. Initial evaluation and management of rib fractures. http://www.uptodate.com/home. Accessed Oct. 18, 2013.
- Fractures. The Merck Manuals: The Merck Manual for Health Care Professionals. http://www.merckmanuals.com/professional/injuries_poisoning/fractures_dislocations_and_sprains/fractures.html?qt=fractures&alt=sh. Accessed Oct. 18, 2013.
- Safran MR, et al. Instructions for Sports Medicine Patients. 2nd ed. Philadelphia, Pa.: Saunders Elsevier; 2012. http://www.clinicalkey.com. Accessed Oct. 18, 2013.
- Laskowski ER (expert opinion). Mayo Clinic, Rochester, Minn. Oct. 28, 2013.
- What is a heart attack? National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute. http://www.nhlbi.nih.gov/health/health-topics/topics/heartattack. Accessed Oct. 18, 2013.
- Preventing falls and related fractures. National Institute of Arthritis and Musculoskeletal and Skin Diseases. http://www.niams.nih.gov/Health_Info/Bone/Osteoporosis/Fracture/prevent_falls_ff.asp. Accessed Oct. 18, 2013.