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Fractured Ribs Still Painful After 2 Months? You May Need Surgery

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Fractured Ribs Still Painful After 2 Months? You May Need Surgery

Jul 14, 2023

Ribs are like bicycle helmets. They are made to take the brunt of an impact to keep your delicate organs safe. If they break, doctors cannot just put a cast on them. You are going to need time to heal. While 85 percent of rib fractures heal on their own, in more extreme cases surgery may be needed. Thomas Varghese, MD, explains what warning signs to look for with more severe rib fractures and when surgical intervention is needed.

Episode Transcript

Dr. Miller: Surgical interventions for rib fractures. We're going to talk about that next on Scope Radio.

Hi, I'm Dr. Tom Miller and I'm here with Dr. Thomas Varghese. He's a thoracic surgeon and works in the Department of Surgery here at the University of Utah. Tom, tell us a little bit about when patients come to you for rib fractures and if there is a surgical treatment for that. Obviously, you can't cast a fractured rib, so when can you surgically intervene on a fractured rib?

Dr. Varghese: It's a great question. One of the things that we really go down to get the details about is the mechanism of the injury. Oftentimes rib fractures don't occur in isolation. They occur in conjunction with other types of injury. It's one of the things that we have to really talk to patients about and try to differentiate it out. Is the injury only in the ribs or is there associated nerve damage? Is there associated muscle damage or other bones affected? Because really, we can't just isolate and just treat the ribs without considering other damage that's occurred as a result of the injury.

Dr. Miller: So a patient falls and is injured in a sports event, a sporting event. When might you look at that fracture and say, "You know, it's not really going to heal without me going in there and repairing the rib?"

Dr. Varghese: The good thing is that 85 percent of rib fractures heal on their own, and what we're really looking at is the alignment. With the fracture there, is the bone in alignment? And as long as the alignment is okay, giving those patients pain relief, and a period of rest, rib fractures should heal by themselves.

How Long Does It Take a Broken Rib to Heal?

Dr. Miller: That's a really good point. How long does it usually take for a rib to heal? That is, the patient will say, "I'm having pain." What is it, two weeks, three weeks, six weeks?

Dr. Varghese: It's usually, generally bone healing takes about four to six weeks.

Dr. Miller: So they can expect to have some discomfort?

Dr. Varghese: Some discomfort and some pain even afterward. We first start thinking about surgical interventions after rib fractures, really after a two-month period of time. Non-union is defined by after two to three months period of time and the fracture is there, even if the alignment is correct and you don't see any evidence of healing, that's an indication for surgical intervention.

Dr. Miller: How about at the time of the injury? I mean, in a fractured rib, the points of the bone could be sharp. Do they injure the lungs at times?

Flail Chest (Multiple Rib Fractures)

Dr. Varghese: They can. This is again going into consideration that oftentimes rib fractures don't occur in isolation. So early indications are if you have something called flail chest which is multiple rib fractures really leading to a dissociation of a segment of the chest wall that impairs your ability to breathe.

Dr. Miller: How would that happen? An automobile accident, perhaps?

Dr. Varghese: Automobile accidents, very bad skiing accidents, diving accidents. There's a variety of different mechanisms, and if you think about it, the ribs and the chest wall are really intended to absorb the force to protect everything on the inside and so it's doing its job. An analogy I often use with patients is if you think about a good bicycle helmet, you know a bicycle helmet is good because it absorbs force and cracks. Ribs sort of do the same thing. The difference of course is a bicycle helmet you can throw away and buy a new one. You can't really do that with the ribs, and so you're kind of left with the damage as a result of the injury and then now you're literally trying to put . . .

Dr. Miller: Well, obviously, the reason that football players wear these chest pads.

Dr. Varghese: Absolutely.

Dr. Miller: So they don't fracture their ribs. The chest pads absorb the energy instead of their ribs.

Dr. Varghese: Exactly. And so as a result the body tries to respond by trying to immobilize that area, and this is where we start running into problems. You can imagine if the ribs and the chest walls as a very dynamic instrument and so as you take a deep breath in and out, the chest expands in and out. When you have a rib fracture, your body tries to relatively isolate that area and as a result after rib fractures, there are higher incidents of pneumonias.

Dr. Miller: Because you're not breathing as deep, you're not getting rid of those secretions?

Dr. Varghese: Absolutely. And so this is again, it goes back to when we see a patient with a rib fracture you really have to think of the entire patient. You have to figure out where are the associated injuries, have they had pneumonia? You really have to do a comprehensive evaluation of that.

Dr. Miller: So it sounds to me like a patient who would continue to have pain after about two months probably ought to talk to their physician about maybe giving them a referral to see a thoracic surgeon or yourself.

Dr. Varghese: Somebody like myself. Yeah, it's not just thoracic surgeons but probably thoracic surgeons who have experience taking care of thoracic trauma patients. It's sort of the consideration of what's going on with the patients. A lot of patients that I end up seeing I don't operate on with rib fractures, but even trying to figure out what's going on with the patient, making sure there aren't any other associated injuries, see if there are conservative mechanisms or non-surgical options to treat the patient to see if they can get better. And then if we can't, if there are certain key factors that we see that surgery will make a huge difference, those are the patients that we take to the operating room.

Dr. Miller: Would you also say that a patient with multiple rib fractures is more likely to need surgical intervention, perhaps?

Dr. Varghese: Yes. I would say multiple rib fractures.

Dr. Miller: Flail chest.

Dr. Miller: Flail chest, patients where the ribs are not aligned, like even early on if we see very bad fractures where the ribs are completely misaligned, you know that you can wait many weeks and many months, but if they're not in alignment they're not going to heal by themselves. Those are the patients that we often see early on.

Sports Injuries

Dr. Miller: Tom, what's your advice to a patient who has had a sporting injury, let's say they fall during water skiing or snow skiing or they're playing football, contact sports, and they come away with some pain in their ribs. Should they see a physician, or should they get an X-ray, what would your advice be to them?

Dr. Varghese: My advice is don't try to tough it out. Go see somebody right away. If you have pain that lingers for a couple of hours after the event, and the next day, for example, you wake up and you're still sore and it's not getting any better, go ahead and see your doctor.

Dr. Miller: Any danger signs that you might ask them to look for?

Dr. Varghese: I think that the danger signs you should look at are really in relation to the other types of injuries that could occur as a result of the rib fracture. For example, if the fractured segment goes and pokes an area of the lung, you could have a lung laceration. Those are patients who will have difficulty breathing, they could have lung collapse, they could start coughing up blood. All of those signs are indications that they should go see somebody right away.


updated: July 14, 2023
originally published: March 24, 2016