Trained in dentistry, Sree is currently studying lab sciences. She enjoys researching various health topics and writing about her findings.
Can You Dislocate a Rib?
Although there is a vast amount of literature online about the phenomenon of rib dislocation and ribs "popping out," according to Bahram Jam at the Advanced Physical Therapy Education Institute in Canada, "there are no studies to date that support the notion that a rib subluxation can be reliably diagnosed by manual palpation or that manipulation of ribs can result in the ribs 'going back to their place.'"
Essentially, there is no scientific evidence to support the idea that ribs can be dislocated. That is not to say, however, that the phenomenon people are experiencing doesn't exist. Rather, the terminology used to describe it is inadequate. Mr. Jam suggests using a different word, such as sprain, to describe the issue of rib pain and a soft lump after some physical trauma.
This article will attempt to help people who are experiencing rib pain or sprain symptoms understand what they can do in order to recover.
What Happens When It Feels Like You've Dislocated a Rib?
Many people have described rib "dislocations" after activities like starting a lawn mower, sneezing, or coughing. Some say they hear a "pop" and feel a small lump over the injured rib. It often occurs in the mid back and may cause difficulty breathing.
If the rib cannot be dislocated, what is really happening?
It's possible that ligaments in the rib get sprained when stressed suddenly — this might cause a bodily response in the muscles that makes the lump appear. The lump might disappear after being manually manipulated because the muscles are relaxing.
What's the Difference Between Broken Ribs and Dislocated Ribs?
- A rib is broken when the bone itself is cracked.
- It is "dislocated" when the ligaments surrounding it are sprained.
How to Know What Kind of Rib Injury You're Experiencing
Trauma, such as a direct hit to the ribs, severe rib sprain, contact sport collision, a vehicle accident, or a fall, can cause rib injury. If you experienced major trauma to your ribs because of one of those incidents and are feeling rib pain, you should see a doctor so they can properly diagnose you as you might have a broken rib.
On the other hand, a "dislocated" rib, or rib sprain usually occurs from much milder activities, such as sudden movements around the house.
This type of injury is especially common in those with flabby bodies and weak muscles. When people with those conditions exert physical effort together with awkward body positions, a rib injury might result.
The first two common signs of a "dislocated" rib are a lump on the injured area and tenderness when you breathe.
- You have high risk of rib injury if you play sports like football, boxing, wrestling, hockey, or basketball.
- Also, if you have experienced rib sprain or rib "dislocation" before, you have a high chance of re-injury. Repeatedly suffering chest injuries also increases your chances of rib sprain.
- Obese people with weak bodies can easily "dislocate" or sprain their rib.
- Also, certain medications that weaken cartilages in your body can make you more susceptible to injury.
Symptoms of a "Dislocated" Rib
Depending on which rib has been injured, the discomfort or pain may be felt in your back or chest. After some time, the skin over the injured ribs may swell and bruise. The moment the injury happens, a popping sound can be heard and a lump may surface over the rib.
A few other things that you might experience are the following:
- Difficulty and excruciating pain whenever you sit up, breathe, or strain
- Pain when walking or moving
- A lump on top of one of your ribs
- Painful coughing
- Difficulty in breathing
- Tenderness of the injured area
- Other ribs becoming numbed or paralyzed
If you have experienced blunt trauma to your chest, such as after playing a sport, being in a car crash, or having a bad fall, it's possible you have broken ribs and you should see a doctor.
If you are experiencing this injury, you should apply first aid. Tell somebody to get you an ice pack, lie down on your bed or sofa, and place the pack on top of the area where the pain originates.
Remember the RICE mnemonic that stands for
Take an over-the-counter pain medication and try to avoid movements that cause pain.
It's possible that your rib will get better on its own with rest and icing over the next couple of days. You could also try using a foam roller (carefully), or massaging the rib while twisting in the direction of the injury (carefully so there is no pain).
If your condition doesn't improve, you may want to seek professional help. And if the pain is worsening rapidly, then you should absolutely consult a healthcare professional.
What to Expect at the Doctor
Osteopaths, physical therapists, and other specialists of the spine or sports injury specialists might be the best choice for you to see to help recover.
If you visit one, they will ask you about the recent activities that you did and the symptoms you felt. Aside from that, you will also be asked about your medical history. They will also check your body for any other injuries and perform external examination.
After that, you might undergo x-ray for your spine and chest. In some cases, you might need to undergo MRI (Magnetic Resonance Imaging).
If the rib was only sprained, the doctor may or may not correct the rib depending on the severity of its injury. More often than not, doctors prescribe pain killing medications to help the patient recover and let the rib heal on its own.
Your doctor might also manually manipulate your rib to help reduce the pain or possibly wrap the ribcage. The doctor may advise you to wear gentle compression clothes or chest paddings to aid in relieving the discomfort you will feel while moving.
Depending on the severity of the injury, the doctor may prescribe you other medications.
Healing time depends on the severity of the injury — it may take anywhere from a few weeks to a couple of months to heal.
A couple of days after your rib is treated, you can start rehabilitating. You might find it helpful to use a warm compress to alleviate the pain and the swelling of the area that was affected by the injured rib.
Instead of a warm compress, you can also use heat liniments, ointments, lamps, soaks, or a hot shower. If you have access to whirlpool treatments, then do that.
The heat will improve healing speed and blood flow. It will also make you feel comfortable. However, when applying heat to your injured area, be sure that you lie down straight or in a natural position. If done correctly, the muscles on top of the rib will become relaxed and will make you feel relief.
When it comes to diet, you need to eat protein rich foods. Protein will help you develop muscles easier. A few of those protein rich foods you can eat are eggs, milk, cheese, poultry, fish, and meat. The extra muscles will help protect your ribs.
In some cases, your doctor may tell you to take vitamin and mineral supplements to hasten your recovery.
Exercise and Rehabilitation
For a few days, it is recommended that you stop doing any strenuous physical activity. From time to time, you can also use ice packs to alleviate the pain. You can use ice packs to relieve the pain for three to four times a day, 20 minutes every session.
The amount of time you need to recover depends on your physical condition, age, and severity of the injury. Most people, however, recover after six weeks of rest.
Make sure that you rest and prevent your chest from moving unnaturally or too much.
Be aware of your posture. Always be aware of how you sit, stand, walk, and lie down. If you feel that your muscles or ribs are resisting your movements, then consult your doctor again.
Ask your doctor about the best exercises for regaining mobility and how best to use ice in order to facilitate recovery. They may recommend strength training to increase back strength.
Some of the most effective workouts to strengthen the muscle groups in your chest are rotational motions, pull downs, and rowing. Be sure to follow safe practices while doing these (i.e. using a spotter, not using too much weight, etc.)
When rehabilitating your muscles, you do not need to put a lot of effort into building strength and you don't have to do so many reps that you achieve muscle failure. This is risky as well as a lot of work. All you need is to stress your muscles in order for them to grow and become strong enough to prevent another injury.
Of course, when starting out, make sure that you use light or small weights. Also, be gentle with the workout. You need to stress only your muscles, not your whole body.
On the other hand, if it is a regular activity that caused your injury, stop doing it for a while. If you have no idea what caused it, you might want to analyze your lifestyle. Your doctor might help you figure out the area of your lifestyle that need changing.
After your injury, be wary of the condition of the injured area and your body. Even if you do not feel any dislocated rib symptoms, you should watch out for the following:
- The skin on your chest area is cold, pale, and/or numb.
- You become nauseous and you vomit frequently.
- You still experience difficulty in breathing and shortness of breath.
- You experience possible signs or symptoms of infection such as fever, dizziness, muscle aches, and/or headaches.
- You feel tingling and prickling sensations on your chest.
- You feel new uncomfortable sensations in your body, especially during your recovery and medication period. Though, that might be the side effects of your medication.
- You hear audible pops from your chest.
- You experience minor rib dislocation that you can push back to normal repeatedly.
If you experience any of the above, immediately talk to your doctor.
Here are simple tips to avoid this injury in the future:
- Exercise—Strengthening the muscles in your chest and back area is the best way to protect your ribs from being dislocated. Bench presses, pushups, and rows are ideal for this.
- Warm up before doing any activity—If you do strenuous physical activities, whether for work or for recreational purposes, always warm your body up. A few people advise that you should stretch first. However, it has been proven that stretching before a workout raises the chances of you injuring yourself.
- Wear protective clothing—If you are into contact sports, always be sure to wear chest protective clothing when sparring or practicing. Save your body for the real game.
- Avoid participating in contact sports altogether—It might be easier to re-injure yourself if you start playing again.
As you can see, muscle conditioning is the best way to prevent this type of injury. Also, take note that arthritis can also worsen the injury, so if you do activities that put you at risk of having another dislocated rib, it's better to stop.
If you cannot let go of your hobbies and you have been injured, you must make sure that you rehabilitate your body first. Ask you doctor for the best way to do this.
As mentioned before, it might be possible to mistake a sprained rib for a fractured rib since they have similar symptoms. Unlike a "dislocation," however, fractures can happen to multiple ribs at the same time. Also, rib fractures are rare since the collarbone (clavicle) protects the rib cage from getting damaged.
Normally, rib fractures are associated with other injuries and accidents. For example, the first and second pair of ribs commonly become fractured when a person experiences facial or head injuries.
Commonly, the ones that get fractured a lot are the ribs in the middle part of the rib cage. They are fractured when a person experiences crushing incidents and direct blows to the chest. The most prone to fractures are the seventh and tenth rib pairs.
When it comes to the lower ribs, a fracture can be life-threatening. The lower rib cage houses the diaphragm. When those ones are fractured, the person might experience diaphragmatic hernia. Its treatment will most likely involve surgery.
Just like dislocated ribs, rib fractures make it painful to move and breathe. However, rib fractures tend make people have flail chest — a part of the chest that moves differently or independently. Also, grating sounds can be heard when breathing.
On the other hand, adults are more prone to have rib fractures than children are. Unlike older people, children still have chest walls that are more flexible. It will require a huge amount of force for their ribs to fracture because their bones tend to bend rather than break.
Pregnancy and a "Dislocated" Rib
"Dislocated" ribs are a common problem in pregnant women. However, contrary to popular belief, the baby is not the prime reason a woman could have this injury while pregnant.
Usually, the main culprit is the hormone relaxin. Relaxin is a polypeptide that causes pelvic ligaments and the cervix to relax. It makes things it a bit easier for women during delivery.
Unfortunately, too much of this hormone can make women feel pain in their ribs and can cause sprained ligaments. Even if the problematic rib is corrected, it might be re-injured.
The best way to help women with dislocated ribs is to let them wear an orthopedic rib brace every day. The brace can lessen the pain that the rib is causing. It might be necessary to consult a physical therapist or osteopath regarding the best course of action.
Thankfully, this problem will disappear once the pregnancy is over because the body will stop producing relaxin.
- "Slipping Rib Syndrome." (n.d.) Healdove. Retrieved April 5, 2017.
- Jam, Bahram. "Ribs don’t Sublux, Ribs Don’t “Go Out”… So What’s Going On?" November 1, 2015. Advanced Physical Therapy Education Institute. Retrieved December 30, 2016.
- "Rib Sprain." (n.d.) OsteopathicInfo. Retrieved December 30, 2016.
- Brown, Jim. "Bruised Ribs: What You Need to Know." April 19, 2012. CorePerformance. Retrieved December 30, 2016.
- Mangusan Jr, David. "Rib Sprain - Common Causes, Symptoms and Treatment of Rib Sprains in Sports." (n.d.) PhysicalTherapyNotes. Retrieved December 30, 2016.
- "Dealing with Your Dislocated Rib" (n.d.). Men's-Health-Tips. Retrieved December 30, 2016.
- Dock, Elly. Dislocations. November 5, 2015. HealthLine. Retrieved December 30, 2016.
This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and does not substitute for diagnosis, prognosis, treatment, prescription, and/or dietary advice from a licensed health professional. Drugs, supplements, and natural remedies may have dangerous side effects. If pregnant or nursing, consult with a qualified provider on an individual basis. Seek immediate help if you are experiencing a medical emergency.
Brendan Van Blerk from Johannesburg , South Africa on September 08, 2019:
Well from my side i was sick with a really nasty cough im1.86m and weigh 118kg now after the first week with the cough i had 5 or 6/10 pain when coughing bending touching and then the flu cleared up i thought all was well but i was wrong it got so bad i couldn’t lie on my side or move certain ways then 2 days ago the cough came back even worse and the pain grew to an easy 8/10 then tonight I'm sore and its already 8 so im careful when moving and getting into bed and lying down so i fell asleep in the position it took two weeks to find and about an hour later I must have moved in a funny way cause i woke up hearing a loud pop like if your collar bone or shoulder pops out and the pain that came then and as i lie here is 10 for 10 and i cant get off my bed i cant do anything i can feel witch rib it is so i try apply pressure to kinda ween it back into place now the worst is the pain goes rite around from front to the back by my spine or well almost there as I believe this upper floating rib how will i get it back in order to get out of bed and ease rhe pain??
SMyers0424 on May 19, 2018:
Dislocated rib is absolutely a real thing. I am 5’7” and 123lbs. Ive always been very thin. For as long as I can remember a couple of my lower ribs on my right side actually pup inward (in the front of my body, not my back). I’ve always been able to “suck in” my stomach, wrap my finger tips under the end of the rib/s and pull them back out. And thank GOD!!! Because it is usually pretty painful and uncomfortable when it happens. My ribs on that side appear to take up more space vertically than my left side... looks as if I may actually have an additional rib (or two) on that side. Anyway... I’m at the chiropractor right at this moment for another dislocated rib that is up high right under my bra line. It’s popped inward. You can clearly see the “cave in” where it or two of them, are dislocated inward. So yes, it is absolutely 100% definitely a realistic possibility. I actually got online to see if my eating habits and nutrition could have anything to do with the newly “frequent” dislocations (couple months ago I had one in my left back). Pretty sure I just need to improve my muscle strength and continue eating foods righ in protein. Great article other than the “dislocation” being considered an “incorrect” term. It definitely happens. Good luck to all. I’m sure you wouldn’t be err if you or a loved one wasn’t having an issue. God bless
Vicky on March 13, 2018:
I play Roller Derby and last night I took a hard hit to my left side and rib cage. Instantly my vision was cloudy and I had severe pain in my rib area with difficulty breathing. I finished out practice and thought I would be good to go. Could not sleep last night. Every movement, breath, laugh, cough hurts incredibly. I went to the chiropractor today and he said that it is common to have a rib out of place with the contact sport. He adjusted my back and said I should be feeling about 75%-80% better by tonight. I actually feel like I am getting worse. Should I give in and go see my doctor and just let it run its course and see how it is in a few days?
Naveed on December 12, 2017:
I met to an accident 8 days ago my ribs are dislocated Iam getting treatment in putt ur india
Melissa on September 13, 2017:
I deal with dislocated Ribs frequently after a car accident years ago and I can't explain how painful it is. (especially when you get nauseated) The doctors were no help. Being able to afford a Chiropractor is tough so I found other options. You can purchase a round tube that goes the length of your back to lay down on and use to stretch out on (helps with the ribs). This has made all the difference. You can find YouTube videos on how to use the tube (i don't know the name, sorry) I highly recommend them!
MaryBeth Walz from Maine on August 16, 2017:
Hi, It's nice to see someone write about this. I get the strangest looks when I mention that I dislocated a rib. The more accurate term is probably sublux. We who have Ehlers-Danlos Syndrome do this easily - often in our sleep. Women especially are vulnerable since we have a hormone secreted montly that makes us more hypermobile. Thanks for writing about this!
jul on August 11, 2017:
Hi Tom, I also had a fall and injured my right ribs. it hurts so much and thought was broken. Drs didn't help. All they did was to take an x-ray to my chest. I couldnt sleep but didnt take pain killers. Common sense suggested that I tie my ribs and since I had no bandage I used a wide belt to support the rib area... believe it or not it was the medicine. I was able to sleep and didnt stop using it until I was well. never saw the dr again,
Dr. Rice on June 12, 2017:
Interesting article and view. I will say that an anterior rib that has gone anteriorly or a posterior rib that has gone posteriorly are very well-described by patients. And I challenge the notion that a competent physician cannot palpate the difference. I palpate these frequently and the relief that a patient gets is immediate. This is one exception where the manipulation can be very painful. I tell my patients that they may notice a 9-10 out of 10 pain during the manipulation and that the pain will be short-lived. I believe that that is true about 20% of the time. The rest of the time, the patient states that it was not nearly that bad.
I don't post this to be argumentative, but instead to maybe have you to question yourselves a bit. I don't believe that a rib subluxation is rare and I do not believe that they cannot be detected and I do not believe that they cannot be reliably repositioned to normal.
Tom on May 23, 2017:
Man .. I fell off a steep slope onto a bolder. I smashed onto my left rib cage. That day just a bit of pain. Could not sleep. next night feeling somewhat better watching TV lying down laughed and coughed .. pop and spasm .. can't move my left arm or breathe .. Advil and Arnica help ... I never will try that "let's go down that steep hill" again!
Dianne on May 05, 2017:
Great overview, Thanks!
Dan on April 10, 2017:
I know my rib is out. I can feel it pushing against my shoulder blade. I can also feel it pushing in on my chest. Sometimes I feel like I'm having heart problems, because it is pushing on that side. I have been to the chiropractor, but as soon as I leave, it goes out again. Not sure what to do.
Stephen on February 27, 2017:
I've twice had a rib dislocated: it was very obvious, I could feel the bone out of place, feel when it was adjusted into place based on getting it unstuck and back into place. The articles quoted here indicate "Essentially, there is no scientific evidence to support the idea that ribs can be dislocated" and I followed up to the source quoted in the article -- no one is saying that tests were done to see if these dislocations weren't happening. The lack of studies is not the same as studies disproving it. The source you quote talked about "radiological" proof -- when my rib was out of place, it was totally obvious, I could tell by touch, I could tell visually -- all the source you quote says is that no one has done a scientific study of this rather obvious phenomena using x-rays and controlled studies. The lack of studies means no one has funded the studies, not that this isn't happening. Some non-funded medicine I'm skeptical about, but this one just seems like arbitrary attacks on anything chiropractors do, rather than seeking actual mistakes.
Melissa on February 27, 2017:
Can I pop my back with a cracked rib?
Shagi on February 02, 2017:
Go to an osteopath, instant relief, sore the next few days but, rest is needed.
Tonya, for God sakes, go see a doctor!
Tonya on January 26, 2017:
I had an accident while horsing around with my brother. Result was me falling backwards over stacked boxes and him landing on me full force against hard floor, hit a specific 1-2 vertebrae in upper back and his elbow plunged right into my diaphragm, ribs, and sternum process area. I could breathe in, but not exhale for a couple min and was extremely difficult and noisy like my lungs were closed while doing so, took everything I had to get air out. Has been a week of intermittent stomach pain, worsening rib and lung pain on that side. Whenever pressure is put on it, like from toddler crawling on me, it feels like its tearing apart. Considering Dr tomorrow as I've also been strained breathing, constant cold chills and extreme anxiety/feeling of inability to think and function normally. While lounging on couch tonight it sounded and felt fluid like while breathing but then stopped when sat upright.
Probably nobody on here this time of night, but any similar experience or knowledge would be great. Can't find much for body slam with direct trauma to this area online. Symptoms seem to line up more with internal bleeding from what I can find online but not sure this injury could cause something that severe?
Peter Schardt on December 31, 2016:
I have had experience of dislocated rib in my back as no doctor could find it but one chiropractor did and this was 28 years ago. I now have learned how to pop the Rib back in myself. I pop a Rib it I sneeze hard, or crash on mountain bike.
Dr Riviera on December 12, 2016:
Imminent death can causing feeling of tingling in fingers and hands. Please check with a bone man regarding your auspicious diagnosis.
Joy on December 08, 2016:
Felt like my back felt to my front from middle of back to top and then like pain came around to the front under my chest bone. Could not stand up straight. Came home and rested. Went to Chiropractor next day feel a somewhat better but tingling down both arms into my hands and fingers. What could be causing the tingling sensation down both arms into my fingers?
Nickolas B on October 14, 2016:
I am experiencing the same issue.
5 hours of sleep if i'm lucky and then wake up with extreme pain.
For me I go to Chiropractic Dr's.
Last week he was able to set my rib, and I slept for 8 hours. It only lasted two days and then back out again, I assume from heavy lifting. I went back for a reset and it didn't take.
Im going to keep at it.
Bobby T on October 13, 2016:
I've had pain on the right side of my ribs and travels along the side of my body to the front of chest. The ribs snap while leaning to the left. The pain is strong enough to take your breath away. I've had acupuncture, RFN, chiropractic adjustments, physical manipulation, and steroid shots to see if it would make the pain go away but nothing works. i only sleep maybe three hours a day because of the pain. And it's always there when I wake up. Are there any other suggestions the only relief I ever got was with a nerve block by that only hid the problem
Irma on September 11, 2016:
I'm not a fan of chiropractic work but
Use it on a needs basis.
I got some work done recently...
My rib was out, I was in a lot of pain and it
Was difficult to inhale deeply.
You have to make sure about what is going on in your body, I have some medical background and am an LMT.
Always check with a medical professional first.
I never let them crack my neck!
Terri Randall on August 20, 2016:
I injured my rib a couple months ago, just sitting in a chair. I get sporadic relief. I don't like chiropractors but don't know what kind of Dr. can help?