Ask Dr. K: Use OTC painkillers to treat broken ribs

DEAR DOCTOR K: I recently broke a couple of ribs, and the pain is so bad I can hardly move. I can’t sleep at night and I can’t take a deep breath. I went to the doctor, but he said there isn’t much he can do. I was surprised that he didn’t even tape up my ribs. Is there anything I can do to help my ribs heal quicker and ease my discomfort?

DEAR READER: I understand why you ask the question. If you’ve ever fractured a bone, it has probably been put in a plaster cast or a splint.

And rib fractures, like any fracture, do hurt. So why didn’t your doctor try to keep your broken ribs from moving by taping your ribs? Here’s the dilemma: Your ribs have to move every time you take a breath.

In addition, after a rib fracture, the surrounding bones and muscles generally hold the bones together well enough on their own.

But that doesn’t mean that nothing can be done to ease your discomfort in the meantime. For any fracture, it’s important to relieve pain. Relatively high doses of painkillers available over-the-counter can be sufficient. That includes acetaminophen (Tylenol) and nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) such as ibuprofen (Advil, Motrin) or naproxen (Aleve). If these do not provide sufficient relief, your doctor should prescribe a more potent prescription painkiller.

Your doctor should also make sure that nothing more serious has happened. Sometimes a broken rib punctures an artery and causes internal bleeding around the lung, which can cause shortness of breath.

Rarely, a broken rib can cause a “punctured lung,” or pneumothorax, in which the lung collapses and air enters the space around the lung. This can cause severe pain and shortness of breath. Occasionally, fluid or air collects outside the lung and squeezes the lung. This also can cause shortness of breath.

Dr. Komaroff is a physician and professor at Harvard Medical School. To send questions, go to AskDoctorK.com, or write: Ask Doctor K, 10 Shattuck St., Second Floor, Boston, MA 02115.


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