Bruised Ribs: What You Need to Know
You have 24 ribs (seven sets) that protect your internal organs and help you breathe. A direct blow to the chest can cause ribs to bruise, break, or separate from the breastbone. While bruised ribs are extremely painful, in most cases they heal completely.
Other Rib Injuries
Rib tip injuries are commonly seen in wrestlers, but may occur in other contact sports. This injury is immediately painful and debilitating for the first couple of days. Breathing, sneezing, and coughing can also be painful.
A rib sprain happens when a ligament that is attached to a rib is forced out of its normal position. When the ligament is stretched beyond its normal position, it gives way at a weak point within the ligament itself or where it is connected to the bone (rib tip). It's possible for the ligament to pull a fragment of bone with it.
If the sprain is severe, seek medical attention immediately. If the symptoms of a mild sprain last longer than two weeks, call your sports medicine physician. Slow healing is due to poor circulation and lack of protection to the area.
First aid is rest, ice, and light compression. Long-term treatment includes rest, support around the rib cage, pain medications, and a gradual return to exercise.
How Bruised Ribs Happen
The most likely cause of bruised ribs is a blow to the chest. This pushes the ribs against the surrounding muscles and the impact may bruise the ribs. While the injury is referred to as bruised ribs, the majority of the pain is caused by injuries to the surrounding muscles and rib cage cartilage. In football, the injury could happen when a player is hit or when he falls on his side with the ball or a helmet between his body and the ground.
Bruised Ribs by the Numbers
Number of weeks needed (on average) for bruised ribs to heal.
Who’s at Risk for Bruised Ribs
Any athlete who plays a contact sport is in a high-risk group, including football, rugby, hockey, and lacrosse players, as well as boxers and wrestlers.
- Pain, tenderness over the injured area
- Pain when you breathe, move, laugh, or sneeze
- Muscle spasms of the rib cage
The initial treatment for bruised ribs is the same as for broken ribs, but the recovery time should be shorter:
- Avoid activities that cause rib cage pain, including sports.
- Take aspirin, acetaminophen, ibuprofen, or naproxen for pain/inflammation.
- Use ice applications for 15-20 minutes at a time, 3-4 times a day to relieve pain and to reduce inflammation in the early stages after the injury.
You can treat the symptoms of bruised ribs as outlined above, but the only thing that will really heal them is time. Take about 3-4 weeks to rest before getting back to work. Also remember to breathe as normally as possible. Shallow breaths can increase your risk of pneumonia.
You may be able to train other parts of the body that don’t cause pain or further injury to the ribs. Start off with walking and light weight lifting, as long as it doesn't make the problem worse and as long as the pain of breathing is bearable.
Stretching exercises may help you maintain flexibility of the chest muscles. Try integrating your chest/trunk stretching in with your Movement Prep. For example, add an overhead reach to elongate and stretch your torso when doing the following Movement Prep exercises:
When your body is ready, basic prehab exercises for the shoulder blades, torso, and hips (the pillar) are great ways to wake up an area you’ve been resting to allow for healing. Having the pillar strong, stable, and functioning properly is essential for sports performance
Incorporate the following prehab movements into your training:
How to Avoid Bruised Ribs
While some sports injuries aren't preventable, wearing equipment that protects the body’s core, including the rib cage, can reduce the risk of bruised ribs.
- Steve Smith, PT, DPT, SCS, CSCS, Manager, Performance Physical Therapy Services Athletes’ Performance – Florida
- Complete Guide to Sports Injuries
- State of Victoria, Australia
- University of Michigan Health System