About the Human Rib Cage

Updated February 21, 2017

One of the largest conglomerations of bones in the body is the human rib cage. This large body part serves as vital protection as well as skeletal structure for the human physique. The cage is made up of several bone types and cartilage. It is also one of the toughest and most painful areas to treat if any of the ribs become broken.


The main purpose of the rib cage is protection. The rib cage forms a barrier that encloses the heart and lungs. The most durable bone, the sternum, is directly above the heart and it offers the most protection. The sternum is so durable that a special bone saw must be used to cut it open for operations or autopsies. The rib cage also offers a chamber in which lungs can expand for breathing. Muscles between the ribs lift the ribcage upon inhalation and move down to squeeze air out during exhalation.


The human rib cage is comprised of three types of bones. These include the sternum, which is the large, flat bone in the centre front of the cage, 12 thoracic vertebrae and 12 pairs of ribs. All of the ribs are attached to the vertebrae but on the front only some of the ribs are connected to the sternum.


Three types of ribs make up the rib cage: true, false and floating. The true ribs are the top seven pairs of ribs which are connected to the sternum by strips of cartilage and also to the vertebrae. False ribs are the three pairs of ribs directly below the true ribs, which are connected to the bottom true rib and the vertebrae. The floating ribs are the last two pairs of ribs which are connected only to the vertebrae.


Although the rib cage has a big job of protecting internal organs, the ribs themselves are fairly easily broken. Sports injuries, a fall or even a violent sneeze have been known to break ribs. Fractured ribs can cause excruciating pain. If a rib has a full break the sharp shard of the broken rib can be thrust inside the cage and puncture the heart, lungs or other delicate areas. This is a very serious complication that requires immediate medical attention.


Sharp, intense pain is usually indicative of a broken rib along with difficulty breathing, moving or touching the tender area. Unlike other broken bones, there is no way to put a cast on broken ribs. Broken ribs can be wrapped using adhesive tape from the sternum, over the top of the broken rib, and ending at the spine. The goal is to keep the broken rib immobile while still allowing the person to breathe. A doctor can take X-rays to confirm a break and make sure the rib is not jutting into vital areas.

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