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Broken Ribs and Stomach Ache
June 2001

Q. I need some advice, I fell off of a horse about 3 weeks ago. I had fallen onto a split rail fence. When I got to the ER the X-ray showed that I had 2 broken ribs. This has been very painful. How long will it take before they stop hurting so much and when they will they heal? Also I am not sure if the fall caused this problem or not, but my stomach has been giving me problems ever since. I started throwing up and have been doing so almost ever since. I have lost 14 pounds. I'm planning on visiting a gastro doctor this week.

A. Definitely a visit to your doctor is in order for the digestive problems you are having. The rib fracture itself is not the cause, but the stress of the injury can certainly cause havoc with the stomach, even leading to an ulcer developing. In addition, many pain medications are hard on the stomach, so this could be a factor also.

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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