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Ask the Medical Expert Archives 2000-2004

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Broken Rib
January 2001

Q. Approximately how long does it take for one broken rib to heal in a fifty-year-old healthy woman? Also how many ribs do we have in the human body?

A. Twelve pairs of ribs, to be exact. Ten pairs attach to the spine and wrap around to attach to the sternum in the front of the chest, and the two lower pairs only attach to the spine in the back. The ribs serve to protect the internal organs, lungs, heart, liver, kidneys, spleen, from injury. The bones have a lot of nerve endings so when damage occurs, pain is prominent.

The general principle for treating broken bones is to put them back into the right place anatomically, and allow time for healing. In the case of a broken arm, this would mean a cast, or surgery followed by a cast, and 4-12 weeks to heal depending on location and severity. The ribs cannot be immobilized without causing severe lung problems (pneumonia, collapsed lung) so they are usually left alone to heal in time, meaning lots of pain and disability while that takes place. Since the ribs move whenever we breathe, this is a difficult process!




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