Rib fracture

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Rib fracture
ICD-10 S22.3-S22.4
ICD-9 807.0, 807.1
DiseasesDB 11553
eMedicine emerg/204 

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A rib fracture is a break or fracture in one or more of the bones making up the human rib cage.

  • The middle ribs are the ones most commonly fractured. Fractures usually occur from direct blows or from indirect crushing injuries. The weakest part of a rib is just anterior to its angle, but a fracture can occur anywhere.

Rib fractures are usually quite painful because the ribs have to move to allow for breathing. Even a small crack can inflame a tendon and cripple an arm.

When several ribs are broken in several places a flail chest results, and the detached bone sections will move separately from the rest of the chest.


Rib fractures can occur without direct trauma and have been reported after sustained coughing and in various sports – for example, rowing and golf – often in elite athletes. They can also occur as a consequence of diseases such as cancer or infections (pathological fracture).

Fragility fractures of ribs can occur due to diseased bone structure, e.g., osteoporosis and metastatic deposits.


Broken ribs are often indicated by the following symptoms:

  • Pain when breathing or with movement
  • A portion of the chest wall moving separately from the rest of the chest (flail chest)
  • A grating sound with breathing or movement
  • Where the mechanism of injury would indicate substantial force to the ribs


There is no specific treatment for rib fractures, but various supportive measures can be taken. In simple rib fractures, pain can lead to reduced movement and cough suppression; this can contribute to formation of secondary chest infection. Adequate analgesia can avoid this.

Flail chest is a potentially life-threatening injury and will often require a period of assisted ventilation. Flail chest and first rib fractures are high-energy injuries and should prompt investigation of damage to underlying viscera (e.g., lung contusion) or remotely (e.g., C spine injury).

Spontaneous fractures in sportspeople generally require a cessation of the cause, e.g., time off rowing, whilst maintaining cardiovascular fitness.