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Rib sprain - Common Causes, Symptoms and Treatment of Rib Sprains in Sports

A rib sprain is a type of rib injury wherein one or more ligaments supporting any of the joints between your ribs and spine (vertebrae) or where your ribs attach to the sternum (breastbone) are overstretched or partially or totally torn. Overstretching of the ligaments or supporting structures may cause pain and swelling.

Sprain that occurs between your ribs and spine is medically known as costovertebral sprain. If it occurs in the joint between your ribs and sternum, it is called costochondral sprain.

Common causes of rib sprain

Common causes of rib sprains are
  • falls,
  • vehicular accidents,
  • and
  • direct blow to the ribs from contact sports.

They may result in the rib or ribs to be temporarily displaced at the joint causing stretching or tearing of the ligament.

People engaging in contact or collision sports, such as boxing, taekwondo, American football, and hockey are at risk of rib injuries including rib sprain. Having previous sports injury to your ribs may also increase your risk of getting rib sprain.


The most common symptom of a rib sprain is pain at the site of injury. Sometimes, you may feel a "pop" or tearing at the time of your injury. The site of your injury is tender to touch and swelling may occur depending on the severity of your injury. You may also feel your pain getting worse when you try to move or turn your trunk, cough or breathe deeply. Bruising may also occur soon after your injury.

Severity of rib sprain

Depending on the severity, a rib sprain can be graded as I, II, or III.

In grade I or mild rib sprain, there is stretching or some tearing of the ligament. You may have mild pain and swelling may or may not occur. You will usually have no loss of function.

Grade II or moderate sprain is the result of too much stretching of your ligament causing more tears in its fibers, but the ligament is not fully torn. The pain that you experience is more severe and swelling occurs. It may result in some loss of function.

In grade III or severe rib sprain, your ligament is completely torn and symptoms are usually severe. You may have difficulty moving your trunk and have difficulty breathing.

If you experience extreme pain, have difficulty breathing, unable to move your trunk, or unsure of the severity of your rib injury, seek immediate medical help.


Mild rib sprain is usually treated with rest, ice, compression and elevation (RICE therapy) and taking pain medications such as ibuprofen or aspirin.

• Rest. Discontinue your sports activity if possible to avoid further injury. You may have to limit excessive movement of your torso or trunk for a short period. Avoid movements or activities that led to your injury.

• Ice application. Apply an ice pack (wrapped in towel) over the site of your injury for 15 to 20 minutes at a time. Do this 3 to 4 times a day. Continue ice application 2 to 3 days following your injury or until swelling and pain has subsided. Icing helps to relieve your pain and reduce swelling.

• Compression. Using compression bandage can help minimize swelling. Compression bandaging should be done by a trained professional to avoid wrapping the bandage too tight. Using bandages should be used cautiously as it may restrict your ability to take deep breaths, which may increase your risk of having pneumonia.

• Elevation. Elevate your upper body by adding more pillows as you lie in bed or sit in a reclining chair. This may help reduce swelling.

Moderate and severe rib sprain should be looked at by a qualified health care provider for proper diagnosis and treatment. Common treatments may include prescription or over-the-counter pain medication or injection with a local anesthetic, supportive wrap and physical therapy.

Progressive exercises are often recommended as part of your rehabilitation program after sufficient healing of your injury has occurred. Your orthopedic doctor or physical therapist can help develop a comprehensive rehab program for you including a list of exercises that you can perform to improve your flexibility and strength.

Recovery time from rib sprain

The type of rehabilitation program and the amount of time for you to fully recover after your injury depends on the severity of your rib sprain and your rate of healing. It may take you 3 to 6 weeks to fully recover from a mild rib sprain. Moderate or grade II sprains may take about 2 to 3 months for full recovery. Grade III rib sprain takes longer to heal and may take you up to 12 months before you can fully return to your sport activity.

If you experience severe pain or have difficulty breathing or moving, you should consult your health care provider immediately as further delaying consultation may lead to future complications.


Rib Injuries. Better Health Channel, 2010
Chest Injuries . World Ortho Electronic Textbook, Chapter 26, 2009
Sprains and Strains. National Institute of Arthritis and Musculoskeletal and Skin Diseases (NIAMS), 2009

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