How to Heal a Rib Muscle Strain
Straining a rib muscle can make it hard to move around and breathe deeply without pain. A strain means the muscle has been over-stretched, pulled in an unnatural way, or partially torn. It can happen if you’ve reached for something, been in an accident, fallen, or if you play sports that use your upper body. You can also strain your rib muscles if you have a chronic or short-term but persistent cough. It can take anywhere from 6 to 12 weeks to feel back to normal, so take time off from physical activities until your rib has healed completely. See a doctor if the pain is so bad that you can’t sleep or have trouble breathing.
Avoid straining yourself or lifting heavy objects until your rib has healed. Doing too much activity when you’re already injured could prolong your recovery time or re-strain the muscle. Take it easy and rest as much as you can. However, don’t go on full bed-rest because long periods of inactivity could cause fluid to accumulate in your lungs.
- If your work requires physical labor, your doctor can give you a note to excuse you from the work. If you can’t afford to take more than a few days off work, your boss may be able to set you up with something less physically taxing until your rib muscle is back to normal.
- If you choose to lie in bed for the first day or 2, get up every hour or so and walk around for at least 5 to 10 minutes to prevent bed sores or complications from inactivity.
- Get as much sleep as you can during your recovery period, since a lot of tissue repair happens while you’re sleeping
Keep your torso elevated and avoid twisting your body or reaching for things. Moving your torso and arms can be painful with a strained rib muscle. Recline in a comfortable position with your torso slightly elevated and try to focus on your breathing.
- A pulled rib muscle can take 6 to 12 weeks to fully heal, so try to rest as much as possible to avoid stretching the muscle any further.
- When you go to sleep, position 2 to 3 pillows under your head and 1 under your upper back to slightly elevate your torso. This will help relieve any swelling and can make it less painful to breathe.
Apply a cold pack to your ribs for 20 minutes at a time. Wrap a bag of ice in a thin towel and hold it onto your ribs for 20 minutes at a time several times a day or as needed. Even a bag of frozen veggies wrapped in a towel will do the trick.
- Avoid applying an ice pack or ice bag directly to your ribs because the excessive cold can burn your skin.
- Wait at least 60 minutes between icing sessions to avoid over-icing, which reduces blood flow to the area.
Use heat therapy after 48 hours to relax your muscles. Apply a heating pad or warm towel to your ribs to help your muscles relax and ease any stiffness in your torso. Only do this after the first 2 to 4 days because applying heat too soon can increase any swelling.
- Heat should only be used once the initial swelling has gone down, which can take more or less time depending on the severity of your injury.
- Infrared saunas are also great for speeding up the recovery of strained muscles.
Take over-the-counter painkillers to ease pain. OTC medications like ibuprofen, naproxen, or acetaminophen can help ease your inflamed rib muscles and any muscles around them that may be swollen to compensate. Most people should take 1 to 2 capsules every 4 to 6 hours, but read the instructions on the package to find your proper dosage depending on the formula.
- Don’t take 2 different types of OTC pain medications at the same time.
- Talk to your doctor about taking ibuprofen or an alternative if you take blood thinners or antidepressants. Combining these drugs with ibuprofen may cause gastrointestinal or bleeding issues.
- If you’ve ever had a stomach ulcer, heart failure, kidney failure, or liver problems, don’t take naproxen.
- Don’t take acetaminophen if you have or have ever had liver disease.
Use a cough suppressant if coughing caused your strain. A severe or persistent cough can sometimes strain or injure the muscles around your ribs. If your strain was caused by a cough, talk to your doctor about using a cough suppressant to help prevent your strain from getting worse.
- Common cough suppressants include dextromethorphan (Robitussin), benzonatate (Tessalon), and codeine (a prescription opioid).
Soak in a hot Epsom salt bath after the first 48 hours. Add 2 cups (256 grams) of Epsom salts to your hot bathwater and relax for 15 to 20 minutes. This is part of your heat therapy, so don’t do it sooner than 2 days after your rib strain.
- Epsom salts contain magnesium, a mineral that supports your muscle functioning.
- As an alternative, fill a large mixing bowl with 1/2 cup (64 grams) of Epsom salt and 16 cups (3,800 mL) of hot water. Soak a towel in it, stirring it around to dissolve as much of the salt as possible. Lay the towel over your pulled rib muscle for 15 to 20 minutes or until the towel is no longer warm.
- Try adding a few drops of lavender oil to your bath to promote relaxation and relieve pain and inflammation
Perform deep breathing exercises every hour. Hold a pillow against your injured ribs and breathe in through your nose as slowly and as deeply as you can. Hold your breath for 3 to 4 seconds before letting it out slowly through your mouth. Repeat this sequence 5 to 10 times to complete the exercise.
- Use your diaphragm to hold the air—your lower belly should noticeably rise and fall with each inhale and exhale.
- It may hurt to breathe with a strained rib muscle, but prolonged periods of shallow breathing can cause other problems like an infection or pneumonia.
- Some people find that the Wim Hof method, which is a type of deep breathing exercise, can help reduce pain and inflammation. Wim Hof also recommends staying hydrated, getting plenty of sleep, and eating protein to help your muscles heal faster
Stick to anti-inflammatory foods while you heal. Anti-inflammatory foods can promote faster healing and reduce stress on your body. Try foods rich in antioxidants, such as berries, leafy greens, beets, beans and lentils, whole grains, avocados, and green tea. Spices like ginger and turmeric are also great anti-inflammatories, as are healthy fats (like those in fish, nuts, and vegetable oils).
- Avoid red meats, greasy foods, processed foods, and foods rich in refined carbs and sugars, which can promote inflammation and slow down the healing process.
- Get your carbs from foods with a low glycemic index, such as beans and lentils, sweet potatoes, non-starchy fruits and vegetables, and whole grains. Avoid starchy foods like white potatoes and bread made from bleached flour.
Schedule a doctor’s appointment if your pain is severe. If the pain is so bad that you can’t rest, see your doctor as soon as you can. They may prescribe you muscle relaxants or painkillers so you can get much-needed rest and be more comfortable during your recovery.
- They can also perform some non-invasive tests and tell you the severity of the strain and how long your recovery will be.
Seek immediate medical care if you have trouble breathing. If taking a single breath is so excruciatingly painful that you’re only able to take shallow breaths, call an ambulance. There’s a chance your rib muscle could be completely torn or you have a fractured rib
- Don’t try to drive yourself to the hospital; call an ambulance or have someone else drive you.