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Ask the Medical Expert Archives 2000-2004

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Ribs Broken
January 2001

Q. My husband was in a auto accident one week ago. He was diagnosed with fractured ribs and bruised lungs. How long will he have pain from his rib fractures? I have been told it can take up to three months before he is able to recover fully.

A. Broken ribs are a very painful and disabling condition. In the human body, there are twelve pairs of ribs; 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 significant.

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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