Rib Cartilage Injury


Rib cartilage injury is a painful condition. The cartilage injury results in severe pain with deep breaths, especially when coughing. It is essential to understand the function of our ribcage, how it can be injured, and how it can be treated before we proceed with explaining a Rib Cartilage Injury.

There are various causes of a Rib Cartilage Injury and specific risk factors associated with it.

How The Ribcage Is Formed

Rib Cartilage Injury

The rib cage consists of 24 ribs, costal cartilage, the breastbone (or sternum) and the spine (or vertebral column). All ribs are attached to the mid-back portion of the spine. The first seven ribs are each connected directly to the breastbone by costal cartilage and are called “true” ribs. Ribs 8 through to 10 are called the “false” ribs because they are not directly attached to the sternum but instead attach to the costal cartilage of the 7th rib above. The last two ribs are called “floating” ribs since they are only attached to the spine but not to the breastbone.

The ribcage has two vital purposes. Firstly, it serves as a protective fence around your organs, such as the heart, lungs, and liver. Secondly, it provides strength and support to the mid-back portion of the spine.

Causes of Rib Cartilage Injury

A Rib Cartilage Injury can be caused by a variety of conditions that include:

  • Sports injury due to constant pressure on the rib cage, especially in sports that require vigorous swinging of the arms or sudden jerking of the chest e.g. Jui Jitsu, football, wrestling, etc.
  • Work injury due to the direct impact of heavy equipment on the wall of the chest causing fracture or dislocation of the rib cartilage.
  • Car injury which occurs during high-impact accidents.
  • A fall causing direct trauma to the rib cage.
  • Fracture or dislocation, which results from direct blows to the chest by solid objects.
  • Forceful coughing in which the ribs separate from their attachment.

A medical condition associated with a rib cartilage injury known as Costochondritis is characterised by the inflammation of the costal cartilage and could result in pain that usually worsens with movement and exertion. The affected individual will likely feel chest pain with deep breaths, coughing or sneezing.

Some affected individuals may also experience muscle spasms in the area of the ribcage and the mid back. In severe cases, the rib cage may be deformed.

How is a Rib Cartilage Injury Diagnosed?

You may be a candidate for an imaging referral by your GP or Physiotherapist for various diagnostic tests, including:

  • X-Ray – used to diagnose rib fractures
  • CT and MRI – Used for a deeper investigation if pain persists and the X-Ray results come back clear. It’s also good for picking up on inflammation in the ribs, e.g. Costochondritis

Symptoms of a Rib Cartilage Injury

A direct injury to the chest can crack or break a rib or harm the cartilage attached to the rib. Symptoms of a fractured or bruised rib include:

  • Sharp, severe pain in the area of the injury
  • Pain with deep breaths that gets worse while breathing deeply
  • Pain with coughing
  • Pain with sneezing
  • Pain that gets worse when you press or lie on the injured area

How is a Rib Cartilage Injury Treated?

In most cases, the treatment for a Rib Cartilage Injury is pain management with medication such as Non-Steroidal Anti-Inflammatory Drugs (NSAIDs) like Ibuprofen to help ease the pain and inflammation.

Rib Cartilage Injury

Complete recovery from a Rib Cartilage Injury is approximately 6-12 weeks, but it can take up to 6 months to heal because they receive little blood supply. It is advised that you rest properly and avoid strenuous activities to allow the body to reduce the inflammation of the cartilage and heal properly.

Your local physiotherapist may also prescribe certain exercises for you as a part of your overall recovery and treatment plan. These may include but are not limited to:

1. Deep Breathing
  1. Lie on your back with your knees bent and your feet flat on the floor.
  2. Place your hands on the lower part of your stomach.
  3. Take a deep breath in through your nose, taking the air right down into the base of your lungs.
  4. You should feel your stomach push out against your hands. Breathe out through your mouth, gently tensing the stomach muscles under your hands until your lungs are completely emptied.
  5. You should feel your stomach push out into your hands as you inhale and pull inwards as you exhale.
  6. Repeat the deep inhaling and exhaling.
Rib Cartilage Injury Deep Breathing
2. Range of Motion Exercises
  1. Lie on your side with the bottom leg straight and the top leg bent.
  2. You can rest your top leg on a folded towel.
  3. Stretch both arms out in front of you as far as you can.
  4. Keep your bottom arm on the floor as you reach the top up and back, allowing your body to rotate with the movement.
  5. You will feel this stretch through your upper back.
Rib Cartilage Injury Motion Exercises
3. Strengthening Exercises
  1. Tie a resistance band around a solid object and hold the ends in each hand.
  2. Stand on both legs with your feet hips width apart, keeping a good upright posture.
  3. Bend your elbows and pull the band back, squeezing your shoulder blades together.
  4. Control the movement as you return your hands to the start position. Keep your core strong throughout this exercise.
Rib Cartilage Injury Strengthening Exercises

How Long Does it Take for a Rib Cartilage Injury to Heal?

Treatment generally intends to alleviate pain whilst the injury undergoes its healing phases, which may take up to 6 weeks for fractures, and possibly 12 weeks if there is a cartilage tear.

During the early stages of your healing process, you want to be mindful of your immunity. The last thing you want while experiencing a rib cartilage injury is to cough or sneeze, which will exacerbate your injury. Hence it’s important for family and friends who are sick, NOT to visit you.

It’s also important to optimise your immunity by going for walks and being mindful of your diet by including foods rich in vitamin C, or you can speak to your GP or Pharmacist about taking supplements. It’s also helpful to rest from any aggravating activities and to take anti-inflammatory medications as directed by your GP or Physiotherapist to help reduce inflammation and speed up recovery.

What Happens if a Rib Cartilage Injury Is Left Untreated?

Generally, minor rib cartilage injuries will undergo a natural healing course and improve within days or even a few weeks. However, it is likely that more severe cartilage damage may not improve on its own and will require input from a health professional. If left untreated, it may potentially worsen and can eventually wear down the joints along the rib cage.

Consider visiting your Physiotherapist or GP if:

  • Your pain is not well controlled through regular painkillers
  • The injured area looks deformed, or you see any abnormal bumps or lumps besides swelling
  • You cannot put weight on the injured area
  • You are experiencing excessive numbness, coldness, or discolouration within the affected area

Thank you for reading! We hope you benefited from this article. To receive treatment for your Rib Cartilage Injury from our Physiotherapists or Chiropractors, feel free to call Masnad Health Clinic on (02) 9793 8840 or BOOK ONLINE.