Chest injuries are quite common in sports and motor vehicle accidents, and many of them cause rib fractures. Broken or cracked ribs can be very painful, but in most cases can be easily managed, unless they have penetrated into the vital organs. In many cases, fractured ribs heal on their own in a month or two, although the condition is often associated with sharp pain, which exacerbates with movement. The healing process can be augmented with limiting activity and avoiding further injury.
Another important activity that can really help is deep breathing. Fully expanding lungs using deep breathing exercises, coughing, and though incentive spirometry is very important and preventing atelectasis (or collapsed lung), which is a breeding ground for infection. A painful rib cage limits one’s ability to take full breaths, and coupled with bed rest, it can lead to atelectasis and pneumonia. Therefore, it is highly advisable to perform these activities to prevent atelectasis. Diminishing pain through over-the-counter painkillers (such as NSAIDs) can also help prevent atelectasis.
For the first 4 to 6 weeks, the patient is advised not to lift more than 10 pounds or push/pull heavy objects. They should also avoid vacuuming, mowing, etc. Of course, that includes participating in contact sports. They are advised to do plenty of walking and perform low-impact exercise and resume normal daily activities.
It is critically important to look out for the warning signs, which include difficulty breathing, blue-tinged lips, fever of 102°F or higher, coughing up blood or thick mucus. If any of these are experienced, one should go to the emergency room right away, as these are heralding signs of the typical complications of broken ribs – pneumonia, pleural effusion, or a punctured lung.
For severe pain, opioids may have to be prescribed, but they are avoided as much as possible. This is because opioids have very high addiction potential and it may become hard to get off them. Moreover, they cause sedation and entail many precautions – including falls, handling machinery, driving, etc. They must not be taken with alcohol or other sedatives or other anti-anxiety or recreational drugs. Constipation is a very common side effect of opioids, and patients who are prescribed opioids are advised to stay well-hydrated and even take a laxative or a stool softener if needed. Ice helps decrease swelling and pain, and may even help prevent tissue damage. Use an ice pack or put crushed ice in a plastic bag.
In some cases, surgery may be needed if multiple ribs are badly fractured. It is definitely indicated if there is a condition called flail chest, in which the broken ribs will need to be held together with plates and screws. Also, if there is a serious injury to adjacent soft tissue, such as an organ, nerve, or blood vessel, it will require surgical treatment. And the recovery process is contingent on the extent of the injury and the type of surgical treatment.