The Ribs

Editor's Note: When you see these three dots surrounded by a gray rectangle — 1 — you can click on it to get further information about the topic. Click a second time, and the message goes away.

This article was edited and updated on November 13, 2019.

The Ribs protect our Internal Organs

Most people know that the ribs are long curved bones which create the rib cage in the chest. Ribs expand while we breathe; they protect our internal organs, especially the heart and lungs; and they provide support for the chest cavity. 2

How many do we have?

Andreas Vesalius, a Flemish doctor and anatomist, determined how many ribs we have in 1543. A great kerfuffle developed over his discovery, however. Because of the story of Adam of Eve in the Bible, the Christian church believed that men had one less rib than women. Variations in the number of ribs does occur, but for most of us, there are 24 ribs (or 12 pairs).

They are 3:

What's in the spaces between the ribs?

The intercostal spaces between the ribs contain muscles, nerves and arteries. The ribcage (or thoracic cage) is separated from the lower abdomen by the diaphragm which helps us to breathe. When the diaphragm contracts, the ribcage and thoracic cavity expand and help us to draw air into the lungs. See also: Good Breathing.

Injuries to the Ribs

Rib bones can be injured relatively easily, and a fracture can occur anywhere along the bone. One would think that only a serious blow or crushing injury to the rib cage would cause a fracture, but they can occur without direct trauma: even sustained coughing may fracture a rib. They can also occur as a consequence of diseases such as cancer or infections, or due to diseased bone structures such as osteoporosis.

Because of its protected position, the first rib sometimes escapes injury, but fractures of the middle ribs are most common. Because the ribs move every time you breathe, breathing can be problematic when ribs are fractured or broken. Pain (which can be worse when trying to sleep) can be sharp and sudden; deep when breathing or moving; or a dull soreness. Even a small crack, however, can inflame tendons and muscles, making it very difficult to move.

When several ribs are broken, or the lungs or diaphragm are involved, more serious conditions can develop which are not discussed in this article.

Treatment for (Minor) Fractured Ribs

Fractured ribs can really hurt, essentially putting your life on hold until the pain is gone.

Unless the injury is severe, there is usually no surgical or physical therapies for fractured ribs.

Home remedies for a fractured rib that does not require medical intervention might include:

Always seek medical advice immediately, so that more serious conditions can be ruled out.

Other articles about bones and joints:

I am a BCRPA-certified fitness instructor in Vancouver, BC. I teach four classes at the West End Community Centre in Vancouver, BC, mostly designed for the older adult. The Inevitable Disclaimer: Everything published here expresses only my opinion, based on my training and research. What you do with the information is entirely your own responsibility. I am not liable for any injury you suffer that seems to be related to anything you read here. Always consult your doctor before beginning an exercise program. For other articles, return to the table of contents.

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  1. These three dots behave exactly like a footnote. Click on them and you will get more information about the topic. 

  2. One of the more painful injuries we can suffer from is broken or fractured ribs. More about that later in this article. 

  3. Thanks to the diagram — although they do not seem to be online any more.