Broken ribs are a type of injury that usually results from an impact or trauma to the chest. Symptoms of broken ribs include pain in the area of the injury, discomfort while breathing and possible outward signs of injury on the skin. Because broken ribs can result in serious complications, medical attention is required. Treatment of rib fractures is aimed at controlling the associated pain while allowing the injury time to heal. Broken ribs may take two months or longer to heal completely.
Symptoms of broken ribs may be minor or severe and may mimic symptoms of a heart attack in some cases. The area where the broken rib is located is usually painful, with the pain becoming more severe if pressure is applied to the injury or if the body is twisted or turned. In some cases, breathing may be painful and the skin over the injured area may be red, bleeding, bruised, or swollen. Because the symptoms of broken ribs may be similar to those of a heart attack, it is essential to seek medical assistance at the first sign of chest pain. Broken ribs are usually diagnosed based on the presenting symptoms, medical history and a physical examination. Imaging tests, such as X-rays or CAT scans, are used to confirm the diagnosis.
Broken ribs are typically caused by chest trauma, such as a fall, car accident or blow during contact sports, but they can also result from violent coughing and may even appear to occur spontaneously in those with certain risk factors, such as osteoporosis. In healthy adults with strong bones, it usually takes a considerable amount of force to break the ribs.
Because of their location, broken ribs are generally not casted. Treatment is directed at minimising the pain and reducing any swelling caused by the injury. Rest is important to speed recovery and anyone with broken ribs should avoid participating in sports for several months following the injury. Compression wraps are not used unless necessary because they interfere with breathing and may cause pulmonary infections, such as pneumonia. In young children, a type of full-chest splint may be required to keep the area temporarily immobilised.
Some people are at greater risk of broken ribs due to lifestyle or bone health, but both of these risk factors can be minimised or eliminated. Osteoporosis, a disease that reduces bone density, is one risk factor for broken ribs that can be reduced by taking calcium supplements, engaging in weight-bearing exercise, and eating a balanced diet. Avoidance of contact sports, especially later in life, can also reduce the risk of breaking a rib. Regular health screenings are also important to check for bone weakness and cancerous lesions that make rib bones more susceptible to breaking.
Broken ribs can result in severe complications, such as a punctured lung. If a broken rib punctures a lung, the chest wall, or other surrounding tissues, blood or air may accumulate inside the chest cavity. This condition requires emergency medical attention, as it is potentially fatal. Any pain in the chest should be promptly evaluated by a doctor, as broken ribs cause symptoms similar to those caused by a heart attack.
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