The ribs form a cage-like structure that helps protect the heart and lungs against injuries. There are 24 ribs in the human body with 12 ribs on each side. Rib injuries can affect the lungs or heart if treatment is not given in a timely manner.
What is a sprained rib?
A sprained rib is also called costovertebral joint sprain, which occurs when there is repeated pressure applied to the chest region. Costovertebral joint injury occurs when there are compressive, excessive, or prolonged forces exerted on the costovertebral joints, leading to sprained ribs. Sprained ribs may involve tearing of the connective tissues around the joints as well as cartilage damage.
Causes of Sprained Ribs
- Poor and Incorrect Posture: An incorrect posture can cause pressure to the rib cage leading to a sprained rib. People who sit in front of a computer for a long time often adopt an incorrect sitting position, which can eventually lead to sprained ribs. Other people who have an increased risk of developing sprained ribs are laborers, dancers, athletes, and those who frequently hit the gym.
- Body Load: Individuals who regularly perform heavy manual work are also more susceptible to having sprained ribs. Inflammation may develop on a person's neck, shoulder, upper neck, muscles, joints, and ligaments if a consistent heavy load is applied. A person may also experience microtrauma and muscle fatigue in the chest region.
- Wearing Inappropriate Undergarments or Innerwear: It is also important to choose the right innerwear to avoid rib injuries. Very tight undergarments may provide the needed support, but may also put too much pressure on the chest area. Wearing an inappropriate undergarment for a prolonged time may cause sprained ribs.
- Sleeping in an Awkward Position: When people sleep in a wrong or awkward position, such as sleeping with legs at an elevated position, too much pressure may be applied to the chest region leading to sprained ribs. Although certain back conditions may require the legs to be slightly elevated, the level of elevation should still be checked to avoid causing problems to other parts of the body.
- Accident: A sudden blow to the chest in an accident may affect the rib cage and surrounding muscles. Such type of accident can seriously damage some parts of the chest region and may cause sprained ribs. Recovery may also take a long time.
- Arthritis: People with arthritis may develop sprained ribs since the muscles in their chest area tend to become weak.
The following symptoms are experienced when a person has sprained ribs:
- Upper Back and Shoulder Pain: These symptoms tend to gradually occur, so people tend to initially ignore them.
- Difficulty Breathing: Sometimes, a person with sprained ribs may feel a sudden sharp pain from the upper back to the chest region, which makes breathing uneasy and painful. In severe cases, breathing can cause excruciating pain.
- Increasing Pain in Body Movements: The more a person moves, the more pain is felt.
Severity of Sprained Ribs
A sprained rib can be graded as I, II or III depending on its severity:
- Grade I - This rib sprain is mild. To some extent, the ligament tears or stretches. A person may have swelling or mild pain. However, no loss of function occurs.
- Grade II - This rib sprain is moderate and occurs when the ligament stretches too much. The fibers tend to tear, but the ligament in this grade does not completely tear. There may be swelling and the pain experienced can be severe. Some loss of function also occurs.
- Grade III - This rib sprain is severe. A person experiences severe symptoms and the ligaments completely tear. A person at this level may experience difficulty in breathing. Movement of the trunk also becomes difficult.
Seek immediate medical help if you experience any of the following:
- Difficulty breathing
- Extreme pain
- Unsure about the severity of your rib injury
- Unable to move your body
The severity of the rib sprain and the rate of healing will determine the type of rehabilitation program and the amount of time needed for recovery. For a mild rib sprain of grade I, full recovery may take 3-6 weeks. It may take 2-3 months recovery in people with moderate or grade II sprain, and a longer recovery time for grade III rib sprain. It may also take a year for people with sprained ribs to be able to return back to their sports activity.
Make sure to inform your healthcare provider if you continue to experience severe pain, difficult body movements, or breathing difficulty to avoid further complications.
- Chest X-ray - To rule out the possibilities of a rib fracture.
- MRI and CT Scans - These imaging tests are highly advanced and slightly costly. Any bone injury can be diagnosed using these tests. Any minutest form of injury can be captured during these scans. For this reason, small damaged areas can be effectively treated and corrected.
- Bone Scan - A clear image of the damaged area of the bone can be obtained by this method.
- Ultrasound - Hematoma or any kind of fracture can be ruled out by this diagnostic imaging technique.
It may take seven weeks for a person with sprained ribs to achieve full recovery. The following are some of the treatment options for sprained ribs:
- Application of Ice: The application of ice can help relieve the pain from sprained ribs.
- Pain Relievers: Nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) are often recommended to help ease the pain.
- Rest: Having enough rest can help ensure a faster recovery.
- Exercise: There are certain exercises that can be recommended by therapists to strengthen the rib cage. Examples of such exercises are thoracic rotation and shoulder blade squeeze.
- Medications: Corticosteroids or local anesthesia may be administered to the painful area.
- Electrotherapy: Helps relax the muscle tissues.
Other types of therapies used for the treatment of sprained ribs include:
- Shockwave therapy and low-level laser therapy (LLLT)
- Active release techniques (ART)
- Spinal manipulative therapy (SMT)
It is better to indulge in activities that are less strenuous since prevention is better than cure. Any damage to the ribs can be prevented by taking good care of the chest region. It is also quite important to maintain one's posture. In addition, treatment should not be delayed once a sprained rib has occurred.