Diagnosis

During the physical exam, your doctor will press gently on your ribs. He or she might also listen to your lungs and watch your rib cage move as you breathe.

Your doctor likely will order one or more of the following imaging tests:

  • X-ray. Using low levels of radiation, X-rays make bones visible. 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.
  • CT scan. This often can 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.
  • MRI. This can be used to look at the soft tissues and organs around the ribs to determine if there's damage. It can also help in the detection of more subtle rib fractures. An MRI uses a powerful magnet and radio waves to produce cross-sectional images.
  • 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.