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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.
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.
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.
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.