Broken or bruised ribs

Bruised or broken ribs can be very painful but usually heal by themselves.

Check if you have a bruised or broken rib

Broken (fractured) or bruised ribs are usually caused by a fall, a blow to the chest or severe coughing.

Symptoms include:

  • strong pain in your chest area, particularly when you breathe in
  • swelling or tenderness around the affected ribs
  • sometimes bruising on the skin
  • feeling or hearing a crack if it’s a broken rib

Ribs can’t be easily splinted or supported like other bones, so they’re usually left to heal naturally. There is often no need for an X-ray.

Things you can do yourself

Broken or bruised ribs heal in the same way and usually get better by themselves within 3 to 6 weeks.

There are some things you can do to help ease pain and speed up healing:

Do

  • take painkillers such as paracetamol or ibuprofen - avoid taking ibuprofen for 48 hours after your injury as it may slow down healing
  • hold an ice pack (or bag of frozen peas in a tea towel) to the affected ribs regularly in the first few days to bring down swelling
  • rest and take time off work if you need to
  • breathe normally and cough when you need to - this helps clear mucus from your lungs to prevent chest infections
  • if you need to cough, hold a pillow against your chest
  • walk around and sometimes move your shoulders to help you breathe and clear mucus from your lungs
  • take 10 slow, deep breaths every hour to help clear your lungs
  • try to sleep more upright for the first few nights

Don’t

  • wrap a bandage tightly around your chest to stop your lungs expanding properly
  • lie down or stay still for a long time
  • strain yourself or lift heavy objects
  • play any sports or do any exercise that makes your pain worse
  • smoke - stopping smoking may also help your recovery

See a GP or go to a minor injuries unit if your pain hasn’t improved within a few weeks

The doctor can prescribe stronger painkillers if necessary or refer you to hospital if you need further treatment.

Go to A&E or call 999 if you:

  • have an injury caused by a serious accident - such as a car accident
  • have shortness of breath that is getting worse
  • have chest pain that is getting worse
  • have pain in your tummy or shoulder
  • are coughing up blood
  • are coughing up yellow or green mucus
  • have a high temperature of 38C or above

It could mean you have a chest infection or that a broken rib has damaged something else like your lung, liver or spleen.

Call 111

If you can’t speak to your GP or don’t know what to do next.