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What to know about bruised ribs

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SymptomsCausesTreatmentDiagnosisRecovery timeSummary
A bone bruise on the rib is also known as a rib contusion. It occurs when a direct blow or trauma causes a chest wall injury to the rib bone. It can result in pain or difficulty breathing.
Medically reviewed by Angela M. Bell, MD, FACP
Written by Amelia Sharp
Updated on

A bone bruise occurs when small blood vessels in the bone are damaged. This results in bleeding and swelling within the bone.

In some cases, a bruised rib may be more severe than a simple bruise and can lead to further complications. In most cases, though, pain from a bruised rib will improve in 3-6 weeks.

Depending on the severity of your injury, a healthcare professional may recommend that you take pain medication and rest for several weeks until the bruising has healed. You may also need to go to physical therapy to help restore strength and mobility in the affected area.

It is important to remember that bruising your rib is not the same as experiencing a fracture. While both injuries involve pain and tenderness in the affected area, a broken rib requires more extensive treatment than a bruised rib.

If you experience severe pain or difficulty breathing after an injury to your chest, it is important to seek medical attention right away. This could indicate a more serious condition, such as a fracture or internal organ damage.

A healthcare professional will assess your injury and determine whether there is any damage to the underlying tissue or organs. They can then work with you to develop a treatment plan.

What are the symptoms of a bruised rib?

Someone sitting with their back facing a healthcare professional, who is examining their ribs.
Photography by Natalia Gdovskaia/Getty Images

Rib injuries can cause a range of symptoms that vary from mild to severe. Bruised ribs are usually characterized by pain and tenderness in the chest area and bruising or discoloration of the skin.

This pain may worsen when you do any of the following:

  • draw in deep breaths
  • cough
  • laugh
  • move your chest and upper body

In addition to pain and tenderness, other symptoms that can occur alongside bruised ribs include:

  • shortness of breath
  • difficulty breathing deeply
  • difficulty and pain when coughing

If you experience these symptoms after an injury or accident, you should seek medical help immediately.

It is important to distinguish between bruised and broken ribs. Even though management for both injuries is the same, fractured ribs will result in a longer recovery time.

While both conditions can cause sharp chest pain when taking a breath, broken ribs often result in more intense pain when inhaling deeply and may also cause you to cough up blood. It could also lead to a collapsed lung (pneumothorax).

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What are the causes of bruised ribs?

Bruised ribs can be caused by various factors, such as:

  • blunt force or a direct blow to the chest or rib area, such as from a fall, a car accident, or contact sports
  • severe coughing from a chronic respiratory condition such as asthma, bronchitis, or emphysema
  • chronic skeletal conditions that weaken the bones in the rib cage, such as osteoporosis or arthritis

In some instances, pregnant people can develop rib injuries (especially in the later stages of pregnancy) due to the uterus expanding to make room for a growing fetus.

It is important to seek medical attention if you experience any symptoms of bruised ribs after an accident or injury.

How can bruised ribs be treated?

Treatment for bruised ribs is often similar to treatment for fractured ribs. It typically involves managing the symptoms of the bruise and allowing the ribs to heal properly. 

Treatment methods often prescribed for bruised ribs include:

  • Pain relief and inflammation medications: Over-the-counter pain (OTC) medication, such as ibuprofen or acetaminophen, can help manage the pain you’re experiencing from a bruised rib. A doctor may prescribe you stronger pain relievers if OTCs are not working.
  • Cold therapy: Applying an ice pack or cold compress to the affected area can help reduce inflammation, swelling, and pain. It’s important to apply cold therapy for no longer than 20 minutes at a time.
  • Rest and limit intense activities: Resting and avoiding strenuous activities that cause pain in the affected area can help with healing. Shallow breathing or taking a deep breath can cause pain, so it is important to avoid this as much as possible.
  • Breathing exercises: Several deep breathing exercises can help improve lung function and prevent infection.
  • Physical therapy: If bruised ribs occur at the same time as broken ribs, a doctor may suggest physical therapy after the bone has healed to help reduce stiffness and increase range of motion.

If you are concerned that your ribs may be broken, it is important to seek medical attention immediately.

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How are bruised ribs diagnosed?

Bruised ribs can typically be diagnosed through:

  • a physical examination
  • a review of medical history
  • diagnostic tests

During the physical exam, a doctor will examine your chest for tenderness, swelling, and bruising. They may also listen to your lungs to check for any signs of internal injuries or lung complications.

To confirm the diagnosis, a doctor may request imaging tests such as X-rays or CT scans to rule out a more serious diagnosis. These tests can help identify any fractures, dislocations, or tissue injuries that may be causing your symptoms.

In some cases, a doctor may also recommend blood tests to check for any underlying medical conditions that may be contributing to the injury or slowing down the healing process.

How long do bruised ribs take to heal?

The healing time for bruised ribs typically is typically 3-6 weeks. However, it can take up to several months for someone to fully recover from a severe injury.

The recovery process for bruised ribs can be affected by various factors, such as:

  • age
  • overall health
  • the severity of the bruise

To speed up the healing process, it is important to follow the recommended treatment plan suggested by a doctor.

If you smoke, consider quitting or stopping while your ribs heal. Smoking can worsen respiratory symptoms.

Heavy lifting and strenuous activities can also make your symptoms worse — and this can make it harder for your body to heal.

Summary

Rib injuries can cause various symptoms, such as pain when coughing or breathing. Resting and limiting activities that cause pain can help prevent further damage and quicken the healing process of bruised ribs.

It’s important to note that each injury is unique, and healing can vary greatly based on your overall health and the severity of the injury.

If you’re concerned that your bruised ribs are not healing, consider speaking with a healthcare professional, who can help you determine the best course of treatment.

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