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What is a Dislocated Rib?

By Erin Oxendine
Updated Mar 03, 2024
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A dislocated rib is a fairly common but extremely painful medical condition in which the one end of a rib slips out of the socket connecting it to the breastbone or spine. Also called a rib separation, it's most commonly caused by physical trauma, like that from a sports injury or accident. People with this condition need immediate medical treatment to avoid potentially life-threatening complications. Though it's impossible to totally prevent this type of injury, there are things people can do to lower their chances of it happening.

Symptoms

The main symptoms of a dislocated rib are sharp pain in the chest or back — depending on where the injury is — along with bruising and swelling. Most people also hear an audible pop when it happens and usually develop a lump. Depending on the location, a person may have trouble breathing, and usually feels intense pain when sitting up, coughing, or straining.

Diagnosis and Treatment

Anyone with these symptoms should visit a healthcare provider for care immediately. The healthcare provider will usually do an external examination and then order medical imaging studies like an X-ray or Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI) to confirm the diagnosis and rule out the possibility of internal injuries. If he or she finds that the rib is only subluxed, or slightly out of place, instead of dislocated, no further treatment may be needed, since many subluxations heal on their own.

If the rib is really dislocated but there are no other problems, the healthcare provider will usually give the person light anesthesia and then push the bone back into place. Once it's reattached, he or she will wrap the person's chest with a compression bandage to hold the bone in place and keep it from getting hurt again. Though surgery usually isn't needed for a rib separation, it may be necessary if the bone is very seriously out of place, if it's at an angle that might injure other organs or nerves, or if there is extensive damage to the ligaments.

Recovery

During recovery, a person can take Over-The-Counter (OTC) painkillers like acetaminophen or ibuprofen to reduce pain and inflammation. He or she should avoid physical activity and periodically apply ice packs to the injury. The time needed for recovery depends on a person's age, physical condition, and the severity of the injury, but most people heal in about six weeks. Even after the rib has healed, most people have to do strength training and conditioning before they start doing their normal activities again. People can speed up healing time by following their healthcare provider's instructions and resting as much as possible.

Potential Complications

Complications from a dislocated rib are rare, but they can happen. Shock can happen, as can infections and impaired blood circulation. Separation of one of the top ribs is particularly dangerous, since they can damage or puncture vital organs like the heart and lungs. It can also put pressure on the nerves of the arm and shoulder, which can lead to serious problems for athletes.

Risk Factors and Prevention

Arthritis, rheumatism, and obesity are all risk factors for a dislocated rib. People who play high-contact sports or take certain medications that weaken the cartilage also tend to have more separations than others. Those in at-risk groups can lower their chances of having rib problems by doing exercises to improve muscle tone and strengthen the bones, wearing protective equipment while playing sports, and stretching before working out. If a person has chronic rib injuries, he or she may work with a physical therapist to work out a strengthening routine or a chiropractor for ongoing therapy.

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Discussion Comments
By henrychukx — On Jan 27, 2016

@Letshearit: Hey, you really need to get your ribs rechecked. It doesn't sound like it was completely put back in place. It probably moved during the recovery time.

By anon993781 — On Dec 14, 2015

X-rays? MRIs? Anesthesia? The mainstream medical community is so full of itself. Go to your experienced chiropractor and he'll put the rib back in place during a 10 minute visit. Really, really. I did so about 6 hours ago. I'm just fine. I dislocated a rib with a violent sneeze yesterday. t was quite painful. My excellent chiro diagnosed it easily, and adjusted it back into place. Immediate relief. I just saved you $4,000 and weeks of pain. You're welcome.

By anon976769 — On Nov 05, 2014

Rib dislocation and separation are different things. Dislocations are the misplacement of the rib from the sternum or the spine while a separation is the rib (bone) separating from the cartilage (which extends and connects to the sternum).

By audiefox — On Jul 26, 2014

I'm a 53 year young female who popped my rib while building shelves for a friend's garage. It has been nine days and it hurts like hell. I have no insurance so the doc I saw at the clinic wouldn't do anything.

I would like to know if there is anything I can wear or do to help this pain. Plus even if I was blessed to go to a doctor who could fix it, I am scared to death because it hurts so bad -- worse than giving birth! Any suggestions or help would be wonderful! Thanks, Audrey

By anon358784 — On Dec 12, 2013

About two years ago, a kid belly flopped me, and my rib on my lower left side popped and it just got a ugly lump. I play sports a lot and it doesn't hurt. It just looks ugly.

By anon341024 — On Jul 08, 2013

Since I've had about six dislocated ribs in my life, I can tell you for certain any chiropractor worth his salt can manipulate them back in place with no problem. The sooner the better, though, because they can take weeks to heal. My latest was two on the right side after bending over from bed to pick up a pen. Of course, nothing showed up on the X-ray but I'm going for an MRI.

I have lost 25 percent use of my right hand and part of it is numb. I can hold out my hand and you can push my fingers down. I just now able to grasp a pen and sign my name fairly legibly. I just hope the nerve damage is not permanent. It is still quite painful and inflamed.

So go to a chiropractor for an opinion! Don't wait forever to see someone else. If he can't help you, he will tell you, but they have helped me all six or so times over the last 30 years!

By pastanaga — On Dec 17, 2012

@Iluviaporos - Another issue is that when it comes to dislocations, the sooner you have them seen to the faster they will heal. When the bone is out of whack it continues to cause inflammation to the tissues around it and those tissues will swell up and make it difficult to put the bone back where it belongs.

I'm not sure if this is as applicable to a displaced rib as much as other parts that have been dislocated, since it isn't a moving part and presumably doesn't have as much tissue at the connection.

But you're right, it's really difficult to tell what exactly is wrong from simple pain in the chest and stomach area and there are so many things that could be wrong that it's best to get medical help as soon as possible.

By lluviaporos — On Dec 16, 2012

@Mae82 - I think the best thing to do in that case is to move as little as possible and perhaps to wrap bandages or cloth around yourself to try and steady the area if you can, but not too tight.

The trouble is that most of the symptoms for a dislocated rib could also be for a fractured or broken rib and if you've got sharp bits of bone in the vicinity of your lungs and other organs, you're risking a lot. So it really is best to go to an emergency room as soon as possible.

By anon296808 — On Oct 12, 2012

See a CCEP Certified Chiropractor.

By Mae82 — On Jul 31, 2011

Does anyone know what to do if you suspect you have a dislocated rib, but aren't able to see a doctor right away?

I took a pretty nasty hit to my side playing rugby the other day and I have felt an odd pinching sensation in my side ever since. It is only painful if I move suddenly. Right now I am alternating between a hot water bottle and an ice pack to keep the painful twinges away, but I am really worried that I damaged something. I have never dislocated anything before so I am not sure if maybe I just bruised my ribs.

By letshearit — On Jul 31, 2011

When I was younger I used to attend a dojo in my hometown for karate lessons, which while fun and great exercise, also led to quite a few injuries.

During a tournament I was kicked a bit too hard in the rib area and ended up dislocating a rib. It was incredibly painful and made it difficult to sit up and breathe properly. My doctor didn't do much for me, just popped it back into place and wrapped me in a giant bandage.

Even today I still get twinges from that spot on my ribcage. Occasionally if I laugh to hard or cough too much I get a sudden sharp pain which sends me into a ball of misery. My doctor tells me to live with it or have surgery to stop my rib from popping out again.

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