Rib fractures usually result from a strong force, such as falls, motor vehicle accidents, or a hit with a baseball bat. However, sometimes in older people, only a slight force (such as a minor fall) is required. The fracture itself is rarely serious, although internal organs (such as the lung, liver, or spleen) are occasionally damaged by the force that causes the fracture. The more ribs that are injured, the more likely people are to have damage to the lung or other organs.
Rib fractures cause severe pain, particularly with deep breathing, and the pain lasts for weeks.
Some rib fractures are not visible on initial x-rays, especially if the bone is not displaced or if the person has osteoporosis.
Regardless of whether rib fractures are seen on imaging tests, treatment can be started. Opioid analgesics are usually used. Also, while awake, people with a rib fracture must cough or breathe deeply about once an hour. If they do not, small areas of the lung may collapse, possibly leading to pneumonia.
Last full review/revision December 2008 by James R. Roberts, MD