Rib sprain: Diagnosis and treatment (what to do?)

rib sprain

Rib sprain refers to an injury affecting the ligaments or muscles located between two or more ribs. These structures are attached to the ribs to hold the rib cage in place, and help with breathing. In the presence of trauma or otherwise, they may be prone to excessive stretching or tearing, causing sharp intercostal pain.

This article examines the causes and symptoms of this condition, and provides information to distinguish this diagnosis from other conditions of the intercostal region (such as intercostal neuralgia). Treatment options will also be offered to relieve pain and improve quality of life.

Anatomy and definition (short reminder)

To better understand rib sprain, here are some notions of anatomy of the chest. The thoracic cage is made up of:

  • 12 vertebrae dorsal (or thoracic) which form the spine in back ;
  • 12 pairs of ribs that articulate with the vertebrae thoracic on the sides, on either side of the spine ;
  • a sternum at the front of the rib cage.

This rib cage plays the risland of protection various important organs such as the heart, lungs and large vessels. Between each intercostal space there is a thoracic spinal nerve which is responsible for the transmission of sensory and motor information.

La rib cage is also supported by ligaments and muscles, including the muscles between the ribs (intercostal muscles). These muscles allow the rib cage to expand when you inhale, and to lower when you exhale.

All of this muscles and ligaments may be overstretched or even torn, in the presence of excessive force. We then speak ofrib sprain. They are qualified according to their severity:

  • Grade 1: Mild sprain with less than 5% of muscle or ligament fibers damaged, resulting in minimal loss of motion.
  • Grade 2: greater damage to muscle fibers or ligaments, but without complete rupture. There is an associated significant loss of movement.
  • Grade 3: Complete rupture of muscle or ligament. These injuries sometimes require surgery.

Causes: Where does intercostal pain come from?

Among most common causes of intercostal pain, We count :

  • un direct blow to the rib cage, for example during a fall or a car accident
  • un shock or false movement due to a contact sport, such as hockey, football or boxing
  • un sneeze or an cough violent
  • a torsion trunk beyond its normal range of motion
  • the movement of heavyweight (especially above the head)
  • the violent twists in a sporting setting (such as golf or tennis)
  • the excessive and prolonged twisting (like some yoga or dance postures)
  • prolonged extension of the head (cervical hyperextension)
  • repetitive movements (rowing, swimming, etc.)
  • unsuitable postures and supported 
  • pregnancy
  • weight gain Fast
  • bone fragility or associated condition (osteopenia, osteoporosis, some forms of arthritis, etc.)
  • drastic change in habitss sports (such as a sudden increase in physical activity)

Symptoms of rib sprain

The signs and symptoms of a rib sprain vary depending on the individual, and depend on the initial cause. In general, we can observe:

  • intercostal pain (at the ribs) sharp and sharp which may radiate to the chest, sternum, the shoulder blades and/or dorsal region
  • dull and progressive pain appearing following repetitive movements of a sporting nature
  • muscle stiffness and tension
  • difficulty coughing, sneezing, or taking a deep breath
  • decreased trunk movement (mainly dorsal or thoracic rotation)
  • intercostal muscle spasms
  • inflammation and edema observable at the intercostal level
  • hematoma (rare)
  • tenderness on palpation of the rib cage (at the level of the affected intercostal region)

Diagnosis: How to be sure?

Diagnosis usually begins with a physical examination by the doctor. I'physical examination generally begins with a questionnaire where the healthcare professional seeks to determine the potential cause of the symptoms, the exact location of the intercostal pain, the general state of health of the patient, etc.

Then, a physical examination where the physician assesses the ranges of motion and strength of certain muscles will identify the functional repercussions of intercostal pain.

Un neurological examination is sometimes necessary to rule out central or peripheral nervous system involvement (such as intercostal neuralgia).

Un palpatory examination at the level of the rib cage will make it possible to better identify the pain.

Finally, a medical imaging (such as an x-ray, magnetic resonance imaging MRI or scintigraphy) may be requested to rule out more serious involvement such as rib fracture, or damage to an internal organ such as the spleen.

Differential diagnosis: What about other potential causes?

In general, rib sprain is easy to diagnose insofar as it is associated with clearly identifiable trauma, or excessive and prolonged effort.

However, intercostal pain can also come from another source. The following diagnoses, although distinct, reproduce similar symptoms:

If you experience any of the following symptoms, it is best to consult immediately to clarify the diagnosis, and excludes serious damage such as rib fracture Or other medical emergency :

  • pain that is difficult to localize (radiates to the neck, shoulders, upper back, etc.)
  • feeling short of breath
  • a mass visible at the intercostal level
  • excessive burning or stabbing pain in the rib area
  • tenderness of the ribs to touch.

Treatment: What to do to get relief?

To treat and cure his patient and reduce intercostal pain, the healthcare professional generally recommends the following modalities:

  • Application of heat or ice (video explanation)
  • Repos 
  • Analgesic, muscle relaxants and/or painkillers (watch out for side effects)
  • Splint as needed
  • Sleep position adjustment
  • Kinesitherapy (physiotherapy): This includes manual techniques aimed at relieving tight muscles and gaining mobility in the back and rib cage. Deep breathing and muscle-strengthening exercises can also speed up the healing process.
  • Osteopathy
  • Cortisone infiltration in refractory cases


In addition to the treatments mentioned above, there are several products and accessories available on the market to relieve intercostal pain. It should be remembered that these tools generally provide temporary relief, and should be used sparingly. Among the products recommended by our professionals, we have:

What about natural remedies? (alternative solutions)

Although they are not supported by solid scientific evidence, several natural products and home remedies are used to treat rib pain, in particular for their anti-inflammatory power.

Here is a non-exhaustive list of plants and essential oils that are effective in controlling pain and inflammation. The products are available on the site Country. Use promo code LOMBAFIT15 if you wish to obtain one of the following products, or any remedy aimed at relieving your symptoms and improving your quality of life:

  • Turmeric. Thanks to its antioxidant and anti-inflammatory powers very powerful, turmeric is one of the most used plants in a culinary and therapeutic context. The composition of turmeric is essentially made of essential oils, vitamins (B1, B2, B6, C, E, K) and trace elements. But it is to its composition rich in curcumin and curcuminoids that we owe them and calm skin of this spice.
  • Ginger. In addition to the special flavor it brings to the kitchen and its aphrodisiac properties, ginger is a root well known for its anti-inflammatory powers. the gingerol gives it its anti-inflammatory action. It is an active component acting on the inflammatory pain related to chronic joint inflammatory diseases, including rheumatoid arthritis, lupus, rheumatic diseases, etc. It has been proven that this active element is also effective in acting on the inflammation linked to arthritis and sciatica. Ginger also has other benefits thanks to its high potassium content and its richness in trace elements (calcium, magnesium, phosphorus, sodium) and vitamins (provitamin and vitamin B9).
  • Omega-3s. Omega-3s are polyunsaturated fatty acids that play a very important role in the functioning of our body. They are provided by food in three natural forms: docosahexaenoic acid (DHA), alpha linolenic acid (ALA) and eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA). Beyond their action on the brain and the cardiovascular system, omega-3s prove very effective against inflammation. Indeed, they have the ability to act on the inflammatory mechanisms in osteoarthritis by slowing down cartilage destruction, thus they reduce the intensity of osteoarthritis pain. Sciatica, being most often linked to an inflammation secondary to a herniated disc, it can also respond to omega-3 provided it is consumed regularly. 
  • Lemon eucalyptusEucalyptus is a plant most often used in the form of herbal tea or essential oil. She would have anti-inflammatory effects which give it the ability to act on the bone and joint pain in general and the pain of sciatica in particular.
  • wintergreen. Wintergreen is a shrub from which a very interesting essential oil is extracted. It is one of the most used essential oils in aromatherapy. This oil extracted from the shrub bearing the same name, is used in massage to relieve sciatica and act like a analgesic. Indeed, it provides a heating effect thanks to its ability toactivate blood circulation locally.

Prognosis and prevention: Avoid relapses and recurrences

Depending on the severity of the symptoms and the type of tear (grade 1 to 3), a rib sprain can take anywhere from a few days to a few weeks to heal. It is estimated that a moderate sprain will take 3 to 7 weeks to recover.

This period can extend to a few months if the muscle or ligament tear is significant.

Prevention is important to prevent the sprain from getting worse, and avoid re-injuring yourself. In a sports context, it is important to warm up before exercise, to go gradually, and to avoid risky movements. Similarly, maintaining adequate mobility and muscle tone helps prevent relapses.

Do not hesitate to make an appointment with a healthcare professional (such as a physiotherapist or physiotherapist) for appropriate care.

Resources: Read more on the subject

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