Updated November 17, 2022
A traumatic impact from a car accident, motorcycle crash, or fall is the most common cause of chest injuries and broken ribs. A broken rib may refer to either a rib that cracked or completely separated.
The rib cage contains 12 pairs of ribs that protect the many vital organs in the chest and abdomen. Fracturing one or more of these bones can result in not just pain but also internal injuries that can affect the sternum, spine, and soft organs.
Unless a rib bone is protruding through the skin, it may be difficult to tell how severe the injury is. If you’re feeling chest pain after an auto accident, go to the nearest trauma center right away.
The chest wall can be injured by the blunt force trauma of a crash in many ways. The muscles that support the ribcage can also be strained or bruised.
A “bruised rib” refers to when the ribs are damaged, but the bones remain intact and unaffected. Bruised rib pain comes from damage to the surrounding soft tissue, cartilage, and muscles. While not as serious as a fracture, this injury can still be painful.
Many times when a rib is called “broken” it really means it is merely cracked or a hairline fracture. While painful, cracked ribs are less dangerous than a rib fractured into multiple pieces. It’s important to listen to your doctor’s advice and avoid activities that could aggravate the injury or do further damage.
Broken ribs are cause for serious concern. When a rib is shattered, the jagged ends of the bone can potentially damage major blood vessels and nearby organs, such as the lungs, heart, or liver.
If three or more adjacent ribs are cracked or broken in two places, you may be suffering from a condition called “flail chest.” With flail chest, the upper rib cage separates from the chest wall and doesn’t mold to your lungs as you breathe. This can cause bruising on the lung and lead to serious conditions such as respiratory failure.
Usually, the pain associated with a fractured rib flares up or worsens when you bend or twist your body, press on the injured spot, or take a deep breath. Symptoms of a rib fracture may include:
- Shortness of breath
- Difficulty breathing deeply or coughing
- Coughing up mucus or blood
- Dizziness or weakness
- Abdominal pain
- Chest pain
- Visibly deformed chest
Seek medical attention immediately if you feel pressure, fullness, or a squeezing pain in the center of your chest that lasts several minutes and/or pain that travels from your chest to your shoulder or arm. This may be a sign of a heart attack. Other symptoms may include nausea, shortness of breath, heartburn, lightheadedness, and neck or jaw pain.
Delayed Rib Pain After a Car Accident
It’s possible to walk away from a crash and not feel any pain at first. You may not realize you have a rib injury until days or weeks later. Many patients who suffer a fractured rib suddenly experience acute pain 14 to 18 days after the incident, causing them to seek treatment.
Waiting for the pain to subside and the unknown rib injury to heal on its own is risky. There is a chance you could gain a chest infection; this leaves you vulnerable to serious respiratory illnesses like pneumonia or COVID.
If the ribs were fractured or displaced, the pain and discomfort may persist indefinitely if they are allowed to heal abnormally. Rib fractures that fail to heal properly can lead to conditions such as:
Mal-Union - The fractured rib heals in an abnormal position, leading to impaired function and making it appear bent.
Delayed Union - The rib fracture fails to fully heal six months after the injury.
Non-Union - The bone is unable to fuse together without surgical intervention due to multiple fractures, displacement, poor blood supply, or infection.
These conditions put you at risk of breathing problems, organ damage, and serious infection. At the first sign of rib pain, chest tightness, persistent cough, and/or fever, you should contact your doctor immediately.
Treatments for a Broken Rib
If you notice a tender or bruised spot on the rib area after a car accident or motorcycle crash, inform your doctor. Tell your doctor about your pain, and whether you have trouble breathing or experience pain when trying to take deep breaths.
During their exam, they will lightly press on the injured area and listen to your lungs. The doctor will probably order an imaging test (X-ray, CT scan, MRI, or bone scan) to reveal rib fractures, damaged soft tissues, blood vessels, and organs.
Once the pain is under control, your doctor may prescribe breathing exercises to strengthen your lungs. Compression wraps are no longer recommended because they restrict breathing and put you at risk of developing pneumonia or partial lung collapse.
You will need to rest. Stay active but avoid strenuous movements, heights, and participating in contact sports. A fall or hard impact could re-fracture the ribs and cause even further complications.
Icing the area and taking oral pain relievers can help mitigate the pain. If that doesn’t seem enough, a doctor may prescribe an anesthesia injection.
Surgery for broken ribs is done only in the most traumatic and complex cases. The recovery period will likely be extended, and follow-up care may be more frequent.
Most broken ribs heal on their own within one to two months. However, if there is significant chest trauma or a flail chest injury, then recovery time may be extended to several months.
During this time, it will be important to properly manage the pain so that you continue to breathe deeply. Doing so will help prevent lung complications like a chest infection.
Techniques that help the recovery process include:
- Breathing normally. The pain in your ribs will make you want to take shallow breaths. Try to breathe as normally as possible. Breathing exercises can help.
- Coughing into a pillow. Holding a pillow against your chest may help absorb some of the sudden momentum caused by coughing.
- Not smoking. Avoid smoking since it delays bone healing and could exacerbate any issues with your lungs.
- Sitting upright. If your rib pain flares up or gets worse when you lie down, try propping up with pillows or sleeping upright in a comfy chair.
Broken ribs can tear open or puncture blood vessels and internal organs. The greater the number of breaks and broken ribs, the greater the risk of internal damage.
Complications depend on which ribs break and how severe the breaks are:
- Severed or punctured aorta. The aorta is the main artery that carries oxygen-rich blood from your heart to the rest of the body. A sharp break in one of the top three ribs could pierce or rupture the aorta or its branches. This can cause severe internal bleeding.
- Punctured lung. A broken middle rib can puncture a lung, causing it to collapse.
- Lacerated liver, kidneys, or spleen. The bottom two rib bones rarely break because they are more flexible than the upper part of the rib cage. But if a lower rib does break, the jagged ends can cause serious damage to any nearby organs.
Pneumonia is a common complication of rib fractures. It develops in patients who resist coughing because it hurts. Other risk factors for pneumonia after a broken rib are being male, drinking alcohol, using IV fluids immediately after the injury, being 65 years or older, and having COPD.
Dealing With Insurance
Chest injuries are the third-most common injuries in trauma patients after head and limb injuries. They range in severity from a single fracture to a flail chest. Broken ribs and other chest injuries are painful and can lead to serious complications and long-term disability. A severe car accident in which a person’s chest is punctured or crushed may require surgical intervention and a lengthier recovery time.
An injury to the ribs during a crash or high fall may also mean you suffered other injuries. Multiple injuries mean rushing to visit the ER or staying at the hospital for several days.
All of this intensive (yet necessary) medical care leaves an injured victim with jaw-droppingly large medical bills. The insurance company’s small check of several thousand dollars won’t be enough to cover your expenses.
You have questions and aren’t sure what the future holds for you medically. Contact our personal injury lawyers at Gary Martin Hays & Associates to learn your rights after a traumatic accident. We work for our clients to get them the just amount of compensation they need to recuperate their losses and protect their future.