During the physical exam, a health care provider might press gently on the ribs, listen to your lungs and watch your rib cage move as you breathe.
One or more of the following imaging tests might help with the diagnosis:
- X-ray. Using low levels of radiation, X-rays allow the bones to be seen. But X-rays might not show a fresh break, especially if the bone is only cracked. X-rays also can help diagnose a lung that has caved in.
- CT scan. This often can find breaks that X-rays might miss. CT scans also make it easier to see injuries to soft tissues and blood vessels.
- MRI. This scan can look for harm to the soft tissues and organs around the ribs. It also can help find smaller breaks.
- Bone scan. This is good for viewing cracked bones, also called stress fractures. A bone can crack 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. Being less active and icing the area regularly can help with healing and pain relief.
It's important to relieve pain. Not being able to breathe deeply because of pain can lead to pneumonia. If medicines taken by mouth don't help enough, shots can numb the nerves that lead to the ribs.
Once pain is under control, certain exercises can help you breathe more deeply. Shallow breathing can lead to pneumonia.
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Preparing for your appointment
Because car accidents often cause broken ribs, many people learn they have a broken rib in a hospital's emergency department. There's no time to prepare. But if you break a rib because of repeated stress over time, you might see your primary care provider.
Here's 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, even those that seem unrelated to why you made the appointment, and when they began.
- Key personal information, including recent accidents.
- All medications, vitamins and supplements you take, including doses.
- Questions to ask your care provider.
Take a family member or friend along, if possible, to help you remember the information you're given.
For broken ribs, questions to ask your provider 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 care provider might ask:
- Where is your pain?
- Are your symptoms constant or do they come and go?
- How bad is your pain?
- Did anything happen to cause it?
- Does anything you do make the pain better or worse?
Feb. 15, 2023