Chest and rib injury

This information is for people who have sustained an injury to ribs or chest wall.

Chest and rib injuries are common and can be caused by:

  • a fall
  • a blow or impact to the chest or ribs

Most injuries can be safely managed at home without the need to see a healthcare professional. For most rib or chest injuries, you’ll not need an X-ray.

Phone 111 if:

  • there’s been new significant trauma within the last 7 days, for example a fall from height or direct blow to the chest or ribs
  • there’s a change in the shape of the ribcage like lumps or indentations
  • you have an increased shortness of breath or new breathing difficulties
  • your pain levels are preventing you from breathing deeply
  • you have a new cough
  • you’re coughing up blood or yellow/green mucus (phlegm)
  • you start to feel generally unwell
  • tingling or burning sensation in the chest, neck or arms

Symptoms

Rib and chest injuries can cause a range of symptoms including:

  • pain
  • bruising
  • swelling
  • clicking in the chest

You may have some or none of these.

It’s typical with this type of injury to have increased pain when:

  • taking a deep breath
  • coughing
  • laughing
  • sneezing
  • moving a certain way

There are strategies to help manage this.

Your risk if getting a chest infection is higher after a chest or rib injury. There’s lots you can do to minimise the chance of this happening.

Self-help

There are lots of things you can do yourself to manage your injury and any pain you’re experiencing.

Managing your pain

Managing your pain is one of the most effective ways to prevent breathing problems. It’ll also help reduce your chance of developing a chest infection.

Regular pain medication can help to reduce the pain. It can also help you take deep breaths and sleep more comfortably.

If over the counter medication is ineffective it’s a good idea to talk to your healthcare professional.

More about taking painkillers

Sleep

You might need to change how you sleep. You might find it more comfortable to sleep in an upright position for the first few nights following a chest or rib injury.

If you wear a bra, you may want to try wearing it when sleeping as some people find this more comfortable.

Breathing exercises

To help prevent a chest infection it’s recommended you do some breathing exercises. These help your lungs expand fully.

It’s important to do this every hour you’re awake, at the beginning of your recovery.

This will be most beneficial if you can sit upright.

Aim to take a deep breath in, hold for three to four seconds and then a slow, relaxed breath out. Do this 3 times and then try a huff or cough.

A huff is a fast breath out, like you would do to steam up and clean a pair of glasses.

How to cough with a chest or rib injury

Coughing when you have a chest or rib injury can be painful. Use this technique to minimise pain and make sure your cough is effective to help clear your chest.

Rather than coughing as you would normally, try to use a ‘huff’ instead.

A huff is a fast breath out, like you would do to steam up and clean a pair of glasses.

Doing 2 or 3 huffs at a time after breathing exercises, should help make it easier for you to cough up any phlegm. It may help to reduce your pain to hug a pillow or cushion to your chest as you do this.

Watch the video to find out how to do these.

Keeping active during your recovery

Keeping active is an essential part of your treatment and recovery.

It’s important to try to keep moving as normally as possible during your recovery. It’s best to avoid long periods of bed rest where possible.

You can try to increase your activity gradually to help your recovery.

Pacing your activity levels

Generally, the first few days are the most painful and when your movement will be most limited. Initially, you should listen to your body and adapt your life to suit.

Too much rest can slow down your recovery. As soon as you can, start moving and using the affected area.

Remember a little activity is better than nothing. Continue to stay within acceptable pain limits but you don’t need to be pain free. Aim to do a little bit more each day or every few days.

How to tell if you’re moving at the right level

This guide can help you to understand if you’re pacing your daily activities at the right level as you progress. It’ll also let you see how much pain or discomfort is acceptable.

It can be helpful to rate your pain out of 10 (0 being no pain, 10 being the worst pain you’ve ever had), for example:

  • 0 to 3 – minimal pain
  • 4 to 5 – acceptable pain
  • 6 to 10 – excessive pain

Pain during and after activity

Activity should not make your existing pain worse overall. Increasing activity can lead to increased discomfort as your body gets used to regaining your activity levels.

Aim to keep your pain within a rating of 0 to 5. If your pain gets above this level, you can change the level of activity by:

  • reducing the number of times you do a movement
  • reducing the pace of an activity
  • increasing rest time between activities

Recovery timescales

Most of the healing happens between 6 to 8 weeks after your injury.

It’s normal to have aches and discomfort beyond this. This usually happens when you try activities you haven’t done for a while. It’s also normal for the area to be more sensitive for a while after the injury.

Driving

You should contact your insurance provider before driving. Your injury may affect your insurance.

You must be able to safely perform an emergency stop or manoeuvre. You should always be in full control of your vehicle.

Work

Your return to work will depend on the type of work you do and your employer. It may be possible to discuss a phased return to work or changed duties.

You don’t need to see a healthcare professional to return to work.

Hobbies and interests

Keep doing any activities you’re able to, as your pain allows. Gradually increase what you do.

Reduced flexibility and strength may make things more difficult to start with. This will get better as you slowly build up to all of your usual activities.

Mood

Frustration or low mood after an injury is normal. As you get back to normal life this should get better.

Falls

Loss of confidence is common after an injury.

Further advice about preventing falls

Help and support

If your symptoms haven’t improved within 8 weeks of following this advice, it’s a good idea to talk to a healthcare professional.


Last updated:
24 November 2023