Limitations due to broken rib

Years ago when I was a kid, I read a fair amount of sports fiction. Sometimes in these stories, a player (not the protagonist) gets a broken rib taped up and then returns to play. Having had a broken rib just last year, I have serious doubts about this.

How does having a broken rib affect playing various sports? I’m especially wondering about basketball, is it possible to play it at all at the same level of play as without? If not, how long would a player be out with having one?

As I remember, it was about 12 weeks before I felt anything at all like before the break. But maybe there’s ways of shortening that time with the right exercises or whatever.

In my experience, if a rib is truely broken, you aren’t doing anything but trying to sit perfectly still. No laughing, no eating, no laying down, no moving, no deep breathing, NOTHING, without intense crippling pain. Vicodin allowed me to lay down and sleep mostly, or get up and move to go take a piss. But I would not even consider playing and sort of sport.

Now, a bruised rib, or minor fractured rib, you might be able to function enough to play if you’re doped up enough, but you’ll find yourself taking it a bit easier than normally.

First of all, what most people refer to colloqually as a “bruised rib” is just a severe bruise to the serratus anteiror or latissimus dorsi (the muscles in front and behind the torso that cover the rib cage) or the intercostal muscles that lift the rib cage. Deep tissue bruising of this area can make breathing or raising ones arms very painful, and because the area is in constant motion it takes longer to heal, and the general treatment is to tightly bind the effected region of the thorax to minimize motion, which also reduces effective lung capacity. This isn’t life threatening unless there are other issues such as internal bleeding, but since the kind of impact that causes this can also cause other internal damage, it is best to be checked by a physician, especially if the patient starts to show urine in the blood, or cannot urinate, or shows any signs of shock.

A genuinely fractured rib, and especially one in which there is a compound fracture (where the rib has separated and cut into muscle or out through the skin) or a flail chest injury (where several ribs are broken inline) is a potentially life threatening injury and will pretty much completely incapacitate the injured party as they will not be able to breath controllably. If the rib punctures a lung the result can be pneumothorax, a pressurization of the pleural space that causes the lung to collapse, which is immediately life threatening, requiring the chest cavity to be depressurized and in severe cases, open chest surgury. Nobody is playing a game of anything except Go or spades with this kind of injury. Although I’ve never had a fully fractured rib I did have a non-pentrated concentrated blunt force injury to the mid-thorax (pectoral region) which resulted in extensive surface bruising and deep contusion (leaving scar tissue in the muscle) with possible minor fracture of the rib, and although it did not incapacitate me in the immedite term it was painful to breathe for the next several weeks; the injury felt as if someone was sticking a red-hot poker into my pec and twisting it around, and I could barely raise my left more than mid-chest level. I cannot imagine anyone with a similar or worse injury could possibly be competitive in an athletic environment.

Fortunately, it is actually pretty difficult for a person using normal body strength to break the upper ribs of an adult because they are so well supported that you pretty much have to break several at once. Even with a concentrated load this is difficult; the adult human chest can support several hundred pounds of load (or equivilent shock), and the kind of force that would be required to break the rib cage would also throw a person back a couple of feet at least. Dwayne Johnson would pretty much have to plow into you at full speed or jump up and down on you while you are lying on the ground to get this kind of injury from a body blow, so most injuries of this nature result from car accidents or falls from height, or else due to impaling injuries (e.g. gunshot wounds). However, the lower, so-called ‘false ribs’ and the floating ribs are not as robust, and especially not in children or even adolescents, and are far more prone to injury from single strikes as they are below the serratus anterior muscles and are weakly reinforced. These aren’t typically as life threatening or prevent effective breathing unless they are driven inward and puncture an organ, but may be even more difficult to heal due to the flexibility of the torso. I suppose it is possible that someone with a fractured floating rib might still be able to compete (never having had this happen I can’t speak from experience) but it seems unwise to say the least.


I broke 2 of the floating ribs on my left side and 40ish years later I still don’t find it comfortable for whomever I am sleeping with to lay with an arm weighting down the area … [can’t sayI recommend getting kicked in the ribs by a horse either] I can definitely say when it happened, I wasn’t able to do much more than get back on the horse and gently ride back to the stable and call an ambulance … and remounting was a fucking bitch.

You got shot wearing a vest, didn’t you?

I’ve had that injury.

It’s very, very painful, but not completely incapacitating. I doubt anyone is going to play an effective contact sport after such an injury, but I suppose someone driven enough could engage in fairly vigorous physical activity provided there was sufficient motivation.

Me - I took it very easy for weeks.

Bert Trautmann played the last seventeen minutes of the FA Cup Final (the major football/soccer competition in England) as a goalkeeper with a broken neck.

So I’m guessing a broken rib is doable. I actually broke a rib playing wiffle ball last summer and later was throwing an American Football around, so I really think it is possible. Alcohol may have been involved, though. Not only does adrenalin help but rib injuries often don’t really kick in pain-wise for another week (I left it almost two weeks to see the doctor, by which time I was having difficulty breathing. The doctor said this was the normal pattern).

Oilers quarterback Dan Pastorini played several games in 1978 with 3 broken ribs; he was the first QB to play with a “flak jacket” on his chest, to protect the ribs. I have no idea how bad the fractures were, but having seen my father cope with several broken ribs over the years, I think it’s a pretty amazing thing to play football (and get hit) while nursing broken ribs.

An NFL Films clip about Pastorini, the rib injury, and the flak jacket:

Thanks for all the replies. I’m impressed that Pastorini could throw the ball with broken ribs. Well, maybe if they were on his non-throwing side, it wouldn’t bother him too much to raise his arm that high.

Anyway, I’m interested in how long a basketball player is likely to be out due to a broken rib. Let’s say he broke it in some non-playing activity, such as a car accident. Anyone have any idea? Is 12 weeks a likely time?

I was recently injured in a fall that resulted in 7 fractures in 3 ribs. It was amazingly painful and long-lasting. However, although it seemed like forever, I think my ribs were totally healed after about 10 or 11 weeks.

But, obviously these injuries and recovery times will vary greatly depending on many different factors.