The most important function of the ribs is to protect the chest cavity. The heart and lungs are two of the major organs located in the chest cavity that need proper care. The ribs allow these and other vital organs to be partially enclosed but also allow for proper inhalation and exhalation. The rib cage bones connect to different parts of the cartilage and joints. There is a total of 24 ribs in the rib cage, 12 pairs located on each side of the body. The most important ribs are located at the top of the rib cage and they are known as the “true” ribs, which includes 7 rib pairs. Unfortunately, certain injuries can cause the ribs to become damaged or torn, such as torn rib cartilage, also known as costochondral separation.
Causes of Torn Rib Cartilage
When there is severe trauma to the chest, the force of the trauma can cause damage to the ribs. The risk factors and causes of a torn rib cartilage include the following:
- Sports injury during contact sports such as football and rugby
- Motor Vehicle accidents, especially for those not wearing a seatbelt
- Work Injury
- Old age
- Accidental fall
- Strain on the ribs or rib cage
- Excess workouts or strain on the torso
- Domestic violence and physical abuse
- Forceful coughing, often causes by smokers
If you think you are suffering from a torn rib cartilage, you may be experiencing the following common symptoms:
- Pain when breathing, coughing, smiling or laughing
- Sensitivity or tenderness of the ribs and torso
- Difficulty breathing or shallow breathing
- Pain when standing or making sudden movements
- Chest pain
- Popping sound while deep breathing
- Inflammation of the rib cartilage
- Muscle spasms
- Bruising or swelling of the torso and rib area
To diagnose a tear in the rib cartilage, doctors will perform different tests such as:
- Computerized tomography scan (CAT or CT scan)- This type of test can locate any fractures or dislocation of the rib cartilage.
- Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI)- An MRI can invasively way to show any hairline fracture or tears in the rib cage.
- X-Ray- A chest x-ray can help rule out any extensive damage to the ribs, but it will not pick up small tears or fractures.
- Bone Scan- This test is more in-depth than an x-ray and allows a closer look at any damage of the rib cartilage.
Note: While it may be easier and quicker to perform an ultrasound, this type of testing can cause more damage to the torn rib cartilage.
How to Treat Torn Rib Cartilage
Rib injuries are difficult to treat, especially if they are in a sensitive area. Doctors will usually provide pain medications such acetaminophen or ibuprofen to help reduce the ache of a torn rib cartilage. It is also best to consult your doctor before taking medication because some can cause stomach bleeding. Get plenty of rest and use an ice pack on the affected area to reduce bruising and swelling. The treatment for torn rib cartilage is difficult because there is no cast to place around the area. A rib belt can help compress the rib cage to allow the torn rib cartilage to heal properly. Overtime, the tear will heal itself if given proper rest. It can take up to 2 months for a torn rib cartilage to completely heal.
Do not underestimate an injury to the ribs because it can be serious. A torn rib cartilage can be minor or major depending on its location, therefore a consultation with your doctor is a must! Seek medical help if you are having trouble breathing or have pain in your jaw. Always wear a seat belt when in the car to avoid injury during an accident. If you are a victim of domestic violence and/or physical abuse, get help immediately.