What Is a Cracked Rib?

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A cracked rib is a type of rib fracture. A cracked rib is more of a description than a medical diagnosis and suggests a rib that has been partially fractured. A broken rib, which is the same thing as a fractured rib, describes any break in the bone.

Any blunt impact to the chest or back can cause a cracked rib, including a fall, a sports injury, a car accident, or even violent coughing. You may not realize you have a cracked rib until you experience the classic symptom of a rib fracture: pain when taking in a deep breath.

This article describes the symptoms and causes of cracked or broken ribs, including how they are diagnosed and treated.

Cracked Rib Symptoms

Cracked ribs are usually caused by a fall, a blow to the chest, or severe coughing.

Symptoms include:

  • Chest pain when breathing in, coughing, laughing, or sneezing
  • Chest pain with movement or when lying in certain positions
  • Swelling or tenderness around the injured site
  • Possible bruising
Symptoms of broken ribs

Verywell / Cindy Chung

Types of Broken or Cracked Ribs

Most of the time, a rib is only broken in one place and causes an incomplete fracture, meaning a crack or break that doesn't go all the way through the bone.

But there are other types of rib fractures.

Displaced and Nondisplaced Rib Fractures

Completely broken ribs may or may not move out of place. If they move, they're called displaced rib fractures and are more likely to puncture lungs or damage other tissues and organs.

Ribs that stay in place—usually ribs that are not completely broken in half—are called nondisplaced rib fractures.

Flail Chest

On rare occasions, a section of the ribcage will break away from the surrounding bone and muscle. If this happens, the ribcage will lose its stability, and the bone can move freely as the person inhales or exhales.

This section of a broken ribcage is called a flail segment. This is much more dangerous as it can puncture the lungs and cause other serious complications, like pneumonia.

Cracked Rib Causes

Common causes of cracked ribs include:

  • Car accidents
  • Pedestrian accidents
  • Falls
  • Impact injuries from sports like football or rugby
  • Repetitive stress exerted during sports like rowing or golf
  • Violent coughing

Older people can experience a fracture from an otherwise minor injury due to the progressive loss of bone minerals as a person ages.

How Common Are Cracked Ribs?

Rib fractures are the most common bone fracture, accounting for 10% to 20% of all blunt trauma injuries seen in emergency departments. In cases where a person seeks care for a blunt injury to the chest, 60% to 80% will involve a broken rib.

How Is a Cracked Rib Treated?

Although cracked ribs are painful, simple fractures usually heal on their own. Time, rest, and physical therapy can speed the healing process and help maintain the range of motion of the chest wall.

In the past, the treatment of broken ribs involved wrapping the chest with a wide band called a rib belt. These are rarely if ever used today as they restrict breathing, increasing the risk of pneumonia or even a partial lung collapse.

The best treatment for a cracked rib is an over-the-counter or prescription painkiller. Nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) like Advil (ibuprofen) or Aleve (naproxen) work best. If the break is extensive, you may be given a stronger pain medication like Tylenol #3 (acetaminophen + codeine) or Percocet (oxycodone + acetaminophen).

During the early stages of recovery, it is best to sleep upright. You can use pillows and bolsters to help you sit up in bed or simply sleep in an easy chair. Lying down can place pressure on the injury, causing pain and possibly making the injury worse.

Healing can take at least six weeks, so it is important to also exercise patience.

When to See a Healthcare Provider

The most common complication of broken ribs is not being able to take a deep breath because it hurts. If you don't breathe deeply enough, mucous and moisture can build up in the lungs and lead to an infection such as pneumonia.

Displaced rib fractures can also damage other tissues or organs, increasing the risk of a collapsed lung (pneumothorax) or internal bleeding.

To this end, it is important to seek immediate medical care if you had a cracked rib and develop symptoms like:

  • Chest pain when breathing in and out
  • A persistent wet cough with mucus
  • Fever, sweating, and shaking chills
  • Shortness of breath
  • Difficulty breathing
  • Bluish color of the skin due to the lack of oxygen
  • Rapid heart rate


Any force hard enough to break a rib is powerful enough to cause other, more life-threatening injuries. It's also possible to break more than one rib at a time. More than three broken ribs at one time are potentially life-threatening.

Since the only way to tell if a rib is broken is with an X-ray, it's important to go to the emergency department if you suspect you've sustained a rib injury.

How Is a Cracked Rib Diagnosed?

A cracked rib is diagnosed with a physical exam and imaging tests. During the physical exam, a healthcare provider will listen to your lung sounds, press gently on the ribs, and watch as your rib cage moves.

The imaging test options include:

  • X-ray: These are good at detecting fresh cracked or broken ribs.
  • Computed tomography (CT): This imaging test composites multiple X-rays and can detect smaller cracks that an X-ray can sometimes miss.
  • Magnetic resonance imaging (MRI): This imaging test is especially good at imaging soft tissues and can often detect smaller breaks or cartilage disruption.
  • Bone scan: This imaging test uses a radioactive tracer to better visualize the structure of bones and is good at finding smaller stress fractures.

Cracked Rib vs. Other Conditions

What feels like a cracked rib may actually be indicative of a similar condition. This is why it's important to have yourself check out if you think that you have a cracked rib.

Other possible causes of your symptoms include:

  • Bruised ribs: This occurs when the ribs are not cracked but small blood vessels around the injured site break and leak their contents into surrounding tissues.
  • Popped ribs: This is when the cartilage attached to a rib breaks, causing it to slip out of its normal position.
  • Pulled muscle: A muscle strain, or pulled muscle, occurs when your muscle is overstretched or torn. In this instance, the ribs are not affected though it may feel like they are.


A cracked rib is a type of rib fracture that can occur with a fall, car accident, sports injury, or violent coughing. The central symptom is pain when you inhale. The injury will usually heal on its own within six weeks. Over-the-counter or prescription painkillers can help manage the pain.

On rare occasions, a cracked rib can cause complications like pneumonia. See a healthcare provider if you have a cracked rib and experience high fever, chills, difficulty breathing, severe chest pain, or a persistent cough with mucus.

4 Sources
Verywell Health uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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By Rod Brouhard, EMT-P
Rod Brouhard is an emergency medical technician paramedic (EMT-P), journalist, educator, and advocate for emergency medical service providers and patients.