Three Rib Stress Fracture Symptoms from Rowing

Kevin Freedman, MD November 19th, 2018

Rowing and Rib Fractures: A Frequent Pair

The ancient sport of rowing is an iconic high school and college pastime. It requires incredible strength and teamwork. Those involved with the sport know that it also has a unique set of possible injuries, including rib stress fractures. For athletes, coaches and parents, what are the classic rib stress fracture symptoms to look for? Rothman Orthopaedic Institute’s Sports Medicine team answers your questions.

What Is a Stress Fracture?

Stress fractures, also called hairline fractures, are tiny cracks in a bone. They can be caused by repetitive force, often from athletic overuse. Stress fractures can also arise from normal use of a bone that has been weakened by a condition such as osteoporosis. Unlike acute fractures where a high-energy injury causes the bone to fail, a stress fracture is the result of repetitive injury causing accumulating damage to the bone. This cause and effect is better known as an overuse injury.

Who Is At Risk?

Rib stress fractures occur in many types of athletes. The condition is more common with certain sports. Activities such as rowing, baseball, backpacking, dance, running, and windsurfing carry a risk of contributing to stress fractures. Stress fractures occur when a bone cannot withstand the accumulated stress of particular activities.

Stress fractures are most common in the weight-bearing bones of the lower leg and foot. Track and field athletes, for example, are particularly susceptible. This is important to note, because stress fractures of the ribs are far less common. Therefore, if you don’t know the symptoms, you may miss the signs that you or a loved one has a rib stress fracture.

What Are Rib Stress Fracture Symptoms?

What does a rib stress fracture feel like? Being aware of the symptoms will help you get the proper treatment and prevent the injury from worsening.

  1. Dull Aching
    The most common symptom of a rib stress fracture is gradually increasing pain directly over the injury. You might barely notice the pain associated with a stress fracture at first. Tenderness usually originates at a specific area of the ribcage and decreases during rest.
  2. Sharp Pain
    The pain associated with rib fractures tends to worsen with time. You may experience sharp pains, particularly when coughing or breathing deeply or after particularly vigorous training.
  3. Swelling
    You might have swelling or bruising around the ribcage. This is not as common in an overuse injury, but it may be present.

What About Diagnosis and Treatment?

If you or a loved one suspects a rib stress fracture, it is important to seek medical care. It is important to discuss your rib stress fracture symptoms so that a diagnosis can take place. A good place to start would be with an athletic trainer.

Rib stress fractures can be difficult to diagnose, and often it takes time to determine the exact cause of pain. This is because the pain experienced may be similar to that of a pulled muscle, so it may not feel very concerning. Also, the diagnosis of a rib stress fracture can be difficult to confirm with a regular x-ray. Other diagnostic tests are better able to confirm the diagnosis, as a regular x-ray may not pick up the tiny fractures in a rib. The two diagnostic tests most often performed are bone scans or MRIs.

Typically the rower will need to cease rowing to allow the bone to heal. How long this will take will be determined by your healthcare professional. During this time other forms of aerobic exercise may be allowed. Once the fracture has healed, the athlete should return to activity gradually to prevent a recurrence of the injury.

Contact us today to see how we can assist you with your healthcare needs. Rothman Orthopaedic Institute specializes in Sports Medicine and Athletic Training. For more information, please visit Rothman Orthopaedic Institute here or contact us at 1-800-321-9999.

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