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.
Most broken ribs heal on their own within six weeks. Restricting activities and icing the area regularly can help with healing and pain relief.
It's important to obtain adequate pain relief — if it hurts to breathe deeply, you may develop pneumonia. If oral medications don't help enough, your doctor might suggest injections of long-lasting anesthesia around the nerves that supply the ribs.
Once your pain is under control, your doctor might prescribe breathing exercises to help you breathe more deeply because shallow breathing can put you at risk of developing pneumonia.
In the past, doctors would use compression wraps — elastic bandages that you can wrap around your chest — to help splint and immobilize the area. Compression wraps aren't recommended for broken ribs anymore because they can keep you from breathing deeply, which can increase the risk of pneumonia.
Preparing for your appointment
Because many broken ribs are caused by motor vehicle accidents, you may find out you have a broken rib in a hospital's emergency department. If you break a rib because of repetitive stress over time, you'll likely see your primary care provider.
Here's some information to help you get ready for your appointment
What you can do
Before you see your primary care provider, make a list of:
- Your symptoms, including any that may seem unrelated to the reason you made the appointment
- Key personal information, including recent accidents
- All medications, vitamins and supplements you take, including doses
- Questions to ask your doctor
Take a family member or friend along, if possible, to help you remember the information you're given.
For broken ribs, some basic questions to ask your doctor include:
- How long will I be in pain?
- What treatments are available, and which do you recommend?
- How can I best manage this with my other health conditions?
- Do I need to restrict my activities?
Don't hesitate to ask other questions.
What to expect from your doctor
Your doctor may ask:
- When did your symptoms begin?
- Where is your pain?
- Are your symptoms continuous or occasional?
- How severe is your pain?
- Did anything happen to cause it?
- Does any action make the pain better or worse?