Sprained Rib: Causes, Symptoms, Treatment, Exercises, Diagnosis

Ribs are basically a bone like cage structure that protects the heart and lungs from any injury. Humans have 24 ribs i.e. twelve on both sides. The ribs play a vital role in breathing as the ribs move with every breath we take. Any injury to the ribs can affect the heart or lungs if not treated on time. Sprained Rib is a condition wherein the ribs, which enclose the regions around the heart are injured due to some kind of pressures exerted on it. Since this is a very sensitive region, utmost preliminary care has to be taken lest it increases the problem and leads to other issues.

Sprained Rib

What is Sprained Rib?

Sprained Ribs are also known as a costovertebral joint sprain. Osteopaths see a rib sprain as one of the most common conditions that occur to people. This happens when repeated pressure is exerted on the joint capsule wherein the muscles around the region get tensed and a person experiences a thoracic facet or a joint sprain. Very often it is the sports players who are affected by sprained ribs. This is because while playing, the sportsmen unknowingly get injured with external pressure around the chest region which results in the twisting and bending of the rib cage and spine causing the ribs to sprain. A nominal pressure can be easily handled by the ribs, but an excessive force on it can be dangerous and can cause the ribs to be sprained and may also cause a shift in its position.

What are the Symptoms of Sprained Rib?

Sprained rib has the following symptoms:

  • Upper Back and Shoulder Pain: A person suffering from sprained ribs experiences a very gradual occurrence of symptoms of upper back and shoulder pain. One can think it as a muscle spasm and ignore it, but it is important to realize that it could be dangerous as it might become chronic if left unattended.
  • Breathing Difficulty: Sometimes the person with sprained ribs may suddenly feel symptoms of instant and sharp pain arising in the upper back region. It can lead to uneasiness and painful breathing. With every breath, the pain excruciates, worsening the situation.
  • Increased Pain with Increased Movements: The pain is usually constant, but increases when a high amount of pressure is exerted or rigorous movements happen around the affected area (an area around the chest and shoulder). The patient with sprained rib feels tortuous as the pain considerably increases at the end of the day. This is because the muscle tissues of the body feel tired and fatigued after the day’s work.

What are the Causes of Sprained Rib?

Following are the causes of sprained rib as mentioned by the Osteopaths:

  • Poor Posture and Sitting Position: Postures are very important precisely because the wrong posture may cause the rib cage to be under pressure and this can lead to a sprained rib. Office goers tend to spend hours in one position. Very often they adopt the wrong sitting position which can cause rib sprain. Dancers, sportsmen, laborers and gym goers usually are the person who suffers from sprained rib.
  • Load on the Body: Very often people who do heavy manual work suffer from sprained rib. High inflammation is caused by consistent loading of the upper back, neck and shoulder, the muscle area, ligaments and joints. A person experiences muscle fatigue and micro trauma in the chest area. Even sudden pressure on that region can induce sprained rib.
  • Inappropriate Inner Wear May Cause Sprained Ribs: Choosing the correct piece of inner garment is essential. These days the markets are flooded with fancy garments that people purchase without realizing the harmful effects of wearing it. Exceptionally tight inner garments for women may appear to provide support; but, they put a lot of pressure on the chest region. Prolonged use of these is another reason leading to a sprained rib condition.
  • Wrong Sleeping Position Can Cause the Rib Sparin: A comfortable position need not be the right position. Very often sleeping with legs kept at an elevated position can result in a force being applied to the chest. It is felt once a person tries to change the position after a few hours. However, certain back related condition requires the leg to be kept a bit elevated. Hence, the level of elevation must be checked and kept at a level which is not causing a problem for other areas of the body.
  • Sprained Rib Caused Due to Accident or Whiplash Injury: If a person is whipped badly on the chest, it not only causes wear and tear of the muscles around the chest but also affects the rib cage. Accidents might badly damage that area causing sprained rib and healing takes a very long time.
  • Arthritis: Arthritis or any degenerative condition can also cause the rib joints to get sprained as the muscles around them become weak.

Diagnosis of Sprained Rib

  • Chest X-Ray: An X-Ray of the chest is advisable to rule out the chances of a rib fracture.
  • MRI and CT scan: Although it is a little costly, this is an advanced technique to diagnose any injury of the bone. It captures the minutest form of injury and projects the correct picture of the damage that happened.
  • Bone Scan: This methodology gives a clear image of what damage has occurred around the chest area.
  • Ultra Sound: This helps in ruling out hematoma or any kind of fracture.

What is the Treatment for Sprained Rib?

The osteopath takes into account the entire medical history of the patient. Accordingly, a specialist is to be seen in case the condition is critical. It takes around 6 to 7 weeks for sprained rib to be completely healed. Some treatment options for sprained rib are as follows:

  • Ice Application to Treat Sprained Rib: Rub ice on the affected area. This enables the pain associated with rib sprain to subside. The patient suffering from sprained rib feels more relaxed with this treatment.
  • Painkillers: Medical practitioners suggest suitable pain killers to wipe out pain associated with sprained rib. Non-steroidal anti-inflammatory medicines are best suited as prescribed by the doctors.
  • Rest: Since the chest area is very sensitive, any exertion might worsen the condition further. Adequate rest ensures faster healing of sprained rib.
  • Exercises for Sprained Rib: Therapists suggest suitable exercises to strengthen the rib cage. This must be done after a few days of rest and following it regularly will heal the area soon. Some of the recommended exercises are:
    • Shoulder Blade Squeeze Exercise for Sprained Rib: This is something that has to be done by the patient himself. Squeeze the shoulder blades together towards the back and hold it for around 5 seconds and release it slowly.
    • Thoracic Rotation Exercise for Sprained Rib: Lie down on your left side with the legs bent at 90 degrees. Place your hands straight in front of your chest with the palms facing each other and kept on the other. Now slowly breathe in and glide your right hand from above your head and place it to the right side forming a straight line with the other hand. This will rotate the spine and provide some relief to the area. Repeat with the other side as well.
  • Local anesthesia and corticosteroids are injected around the affected area to relieve pain due to rib sprain.
  • Acupuncture for Sprained Rib: In certain cases, the medical practitioner advices the patient to undergo acupuncture treatment for better effects.
  • Mobilization Therapy or Electrotherapy: Depending on the severity of rib sprain, the specialist may recommend either a mobilization therapy or Electrotherapy. This helps in relaxing the muscle tissues. It is either done manually by a physiotherapist or the doctor uses ergonomically designed tools and is known as instrument assisted soft tissue mobilization. Specifically designed rehab programs will help the patient suffering from sprained rib to recover faster. These sessions are taken by occupational therapists, physical therapists, osteopathic physicians, chiropractors and massage therapists. A physiotherapist most commonly attends to this condition and would suggest the following depending on the prevailing condition:
    • Lumbar rolls
    • Heat and cold packs
    • Postural braces
    • Massage balls
    • Use of foam rollers
    • Protective tape.

The other therapies that are used to treat sprained rib are Spinal Manipulative Therapy (SMT), Active Release Techniques (ART), Shockwave Therapy and Low-Level Laser Therapy (LLLT).

  • Hydrotherapy for Sprained Rib: Hydrotherapy, as the name suggests, is done in warm water. Different exercise techniques are followed to relieve the pain and the sprain. Common forms include exercising in a warm-water pool, Ai Chi etc. Since water defies the gravitational pull, movement becomes easier and doesn’t cause any additional injury and also warm water soothes the muscles by reducing the pain and sprain.
  • Discontinuation of the Causative Factor: Discontinue the activity that caused the onset of the sprained rib lest it aggravates the condition further.


As it is known that prevention is better than cure, therefore, indulging in less strenuous activities and taking good care of your chest region will definitely help you prevent damage to the ribs or spraining the ribs. If you are a sportsman, then using proper preventive measures helps in preventing the injury to this vital area. Maintaining the posture is of utmost importance. However, if the injury has already happened, one needs to seek help immediately with any further delay.

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Team PainAssist
Team PainAssist
Written, Edited or Reviewed By: Team PainAssist, Pain Assist Inc. This article does not provide medical advice. See disclaimer
Last Modified On:December 12, 2017

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