Natural Relief for Rib Pain

Why Do Broken, Cracked, or Bruised Ribs Hurt So Much?

Last week I did something really stupid. In our acupuncture clinic we have a water cooler/heater that takes five gallon water bottles. Loading full bottles into the cooler means lifting over 40 lbs. of bulky awkwardness, turning it over, and inserting it into the cooler—a job that usually takes two of us. However, last week I decided that I could hoist the container myself, which I did, but in the process dinged my second rib, just under my collarbone. At the time, I didn’t think much of it, but as the day went on the pain increased and spread throughout my chest like a developing Polaroid photograph.

By the time I got home that night, not only did the spot I hit hurt, but the trajectory of the rib—my collarbone, shoulder, and upper back—was sharply painful. To make it worse, every breath I took intensified that pain. I don’t believe that I broke or even cracked the rib; the hit wasn’t hard enough, but clearly it was bruised and not very happy.

I’ve known a lot of people who have broken or cracked ribs, and they describe the pain as excruciating. They talk about pain that seems to last forever, and then after about six weeks, it starts to calm down.

Natural help for rib painSo why does a rib injury hurt so much? First, because so many things are attached to your ribs—muscles, tendons, cartilage, ligaments, and fascia. And second, all of those body parts that are attached to your ribs move when you breathe, laugh, sneeze, or blow your nose. Like a bellows or an accordion, your rib cage expands and contracts every time you breathe, and when your ribs are injured every breath is painful.

What Can You Do for Rib Pain?

First of all, if you suspect a broken rib, get an X-Ray. This is mostly to look for complications from a rib fracture, not necessarily for the fracture itself. If you feel breathless after a rib injury (not to be confused with pain on inhaling), seek out emergency treatment as soon as possible, as the rib may have damaged one of your lungs.

The bad news is that there’s not much your doctor can do for a broken, cracked or bruised rib, except to let it heal. In the past, it was recommended that people with rib injuries tape the area to limit movement, thus reducing pain. However, taping it is no longer recommended, because the lack of movement increases the risk of developing pneumonia. Your doctor may prescribe a pain medication while your rib injury heals. In addition, he or she is likely to tell you to limit your activities to avoid further injury to your ribs.

Can Acupuncture Help with a Rib Injury?

While acupuncture can’t undo a broken or cracked rib or fix structural damage to your rib cage, research studies have documented that it can help in the healing process. Here are a few ways in which acupuncture can be an effective treatment for rib injuries:

  • Acupuncture can be effective for pain relief
  • It can relax muscles that are in spasm from the injury
  • Acupuncture can reduce inflammation locally
  • A series of acupuncture sessions increases circulation in the area to speed up the healing process

With a rib injury, your instinct is to limit yourself to shallow breathing because of the pain. However, it’s important for the health of your lungs to take some deep breaths several times throughout the day. The best (read: least painful) way to do this is stop what you’re doing and slowly inhale to fill your lungs as completely as possible. Slow, deliberate, deep breathing tends to be less painful and get the job done.

As for my rib incident, I spent a number of days struggling to breathe without pain. Lying down hurt, and getting up hurt more. I tried to run on about day three, and was immediately shut down by the pain. I did a little acupuncture plus rest, and am slowly feeling better each day. When you’re in the middle of a rib injury, it’s important to remember that it will heal; it just takes a long time. In the meantime, just breathe.

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