Q: I was playing lacrosse and got hit by a stick and fractured a rib. The doctor gave me some medication for pain and told me there is really nothing that I could do about it and it would take one to two months to heal and not before I could return to lacrosse. He was not a sports doctor and I wonder is there any other treatment that would allow me to play sooner.
A: Broken ribs “fractures” are a very common injury in sports particularly in football, wrestling, cycling, and lacrosse. These injuries can be very painful and in a rare circumstance if the fracture is out of place could result in injury to the lungs, liver, or spleen.
Your physician was correct that treatment of most rib fractures is symptomatic in terms of pain relief and muscle spasm. Years ago rib taping or a rib brace were used to decrease some of the pain associated with breathing. However, it was found that some of these patients would develop pneumonia and thus these treatments are performed infrequently. Your doctor, due to the location or nature of the fracture, feels that if the fracture is not healed completely you would be at risk of re-fracturing the rib and possibly displacing the rib potentially resulting in serious complications. Therefore, the usual treatment is to wait until the fracture is healed and then to return to competition.
In athletes who are at risk for rib injuries such as quarterbacks and goalies, a protective rib vest could be worn prophylactically in an effort to decrease the risk of injury. Your physician, trainer, or coach will likely know where to obtain a rib vest.
Dr. Harlan Selesnick is in private practice in orthopedic surgery and sports medicine at Doctors Hospital in Coral Gables, and serves as team physician for the Miami Heat and Miami Dade College, among others. The Jock Doc column runs every other week.