ROCHESTER, Minn. — October 22, 2012. Rib fractures are one of the most common bone breaks in older adults. While there's no direct treatment for fractured ribs that remain in alignment, medical care is still important to avoid serious complications, according to the October issue of Mayo Clinic Health Letter.
Rib fractures can result from major trauma, such as a car crash. Rib bones moved out of alignment can cause life-threatening complications including punctures and damage to the lungs and other critical blood vessels or organs. About 19 percent of older adults who sustained fractures of three or four ribs died from complications, according to one study.
But fractured ribs can occur from more common circumstances, too. In another study of older adults, 33 percent of rib fractures were caused by moderate trauma, such as falling from a standing position. And 40 percent of rib fractures had no identifiable trauma and were likely caused by the stress of a cough, a repetitive movement like a golf swing or other nontraumatic events.
While rib fractures from mild or moderate trauma or repetitive movement may seem less severe, they are still painful and can lead to serious complications. Pain often occurs with deep breathing. When patients can't breathe deeply or cough, the risk of pneumonia increases. About 30 to 35 percent of people over 65 with rib fractures contract pneumonia.
Other serious complications can occur with fractures due to mild to moderate trauma. Lung bruising and swelling, bleeding into and around the lungs or a collapsed lung require prompt medical attention. These complications may require insertion of a chest tube or other surgery, blood transfusion or artificial ventilation. Emergency care may be needed for light-headedness, shortness of breath and significant chest pain, particularly if the condition is worsening.
Even when not an emergency, it's important to seek care for a suspected rib fracture to determine treatment and help avoid complications. Treatment will likely focus on pain control and avoiding strenuous activity. When fractured ribs stay in alignment, they typically heal within six weeks. Pain will gradually subside over this time.
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