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How to Sleep With Broken Ribs: Tips and Advice to Achieve Restful Slumber

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Written by: Tatiana
Read 11 minLast updated on November 9, 2021

35% of American adults experience a lack of sleep (1).

And it’s very easy to get on that list when dealing with broken ribs. This injury can significantly impact one’s daily life and, of course, sleep quality.

Here’s the good news: there are certain tricks you can try to sleep peacefully with broken ribs and without that much pain. That’s what today’s guide will share: the most effective tips and tools for better sleep and recovery.

Rib Injuries Explained: Typical Signs and Potential Causes

Ribs serve to protect some of the vital organs, including the lungs and the heart (2). Needless to say, a speedy recovery is essential when it comes to broken ribs.

Now, the most common causes of rib injury include:

  • falling on a hard surface;
  • traffic accidents;
  • getting punched in the rib cage;
  • getting CPR;
  • contact sports (3).

Breaking a rib (or a few) typically causes strong chest pain (especially when breathing in or moving), swelling around the ribs, and sometimes can be accompanied by bruised ribs (4). Often, broken ribs can also cause shortness of breath and difficulty taking deeper breaths (5).

A broken rib can be hard to tell apart from a bruised rib (even X-rays can’t always show a 100% precise image) (6). This means patients often need to make follow-up appointments with their doctors to get a proper diagnosis and receive the right treatment. In the meantime, you need to find the best way to sleep with broken ribs (which this guide will cover below).

Rib-Injuries-Explained

Source:
https://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/broken-ribs/symptoms-causes/syc-20350763

How Broken Ribs Can Affect Sleep Quality

When you have to sleep with broken ribs, you likely also have to deal with constant pain. And pain is no friend for healthy sleep.

In fact, pain can affect sleep in a few ways. Studies show that people dealing with pain take longer to fall asleep, often experience sleep fragmentation, and rest less overall (7). 

Now, sleep deprivation can be very dangerous even for healthy individuals who aren’t dealing with any injuries. For example, poor sleep quality is often linked to hypertension, weaker immune response, impaired cognitive functions, increased anxiety, and more (8).

But when it comes to broken ribs, lack of sleep can play even a crueler joke. The thing is, research proves that sleep loss can heighten one’s sensitivity to pain (9). Therefore, patients with broken ribs can start experiencing even more pain if they don’t sleep well.

How Long Do Broken Ribs Take to Heal?

Broken ribs usually take around 6 weeks to heal (10). During this time, sleeping well is crucial. After all, the body works harder on healing and recovery when we’re asleep than during the day. Additionally, studies show that healthy sleep is crucial for bone health (11). Sleep duration matters too: people who sleep less have significantly lower bone mineral density (12). Therefore, both quality and quantity of sleep are vital when it comes to broken rib recovery.

How to Sleep with Broken Ribs Right: the Best Positions

Things may seem dire at first, especially considering how much pain broken ribs can cause. However, there are many things patients can try to reduce the pain and rest more peacefully. And one of the main steps is finding the right position.

So, here are a couple of ways how users can sleep better when dealing with broken ribs:

  • Sleeping on the back. This sleep position promotes neutral spinal alignment and aids weight redistribution (13). Thus, this sleeping style isn’t likely to cause tension accumulation and may help keep the pain levels to a minimum. However, it is important to sleep on a suitable mattress to achieve healthy alignment. Back sleeping calls for medium to medium-firm support. Heavier individuals might want to stick to medium-firm or even firm models, and lightweight sleepers should pick medium to medium-soft mattresses. Larger folks require sturdier support while petite individuals need something softer to avoid painful pressure points. If this helps, users can place a small pillow or a rolled towel under the knees. It will work to reduce tension from the lower back (which usually makes sleepers feel more comfortable). 
  • Sleeping in a recliner chair or on an adjustable bed frame. In most cases, lying in a recliner puts less pressure on the ribs (even when trying to sleep with multiple broken ribs). Naturally, this can reduce pain levels and may help users sleep much more comfortably. An adjustable bed frame can also do the trick. You can elevate your back and sleep in a reclined position without giving up the comfortable feel of your mattress.
  • Lying on a wedge pillow (elevated). Another way to reduce tension from the ribs is using a wedge pillow to elevate the back slightly. It’s also possible to use a few regular pillows stacked on top of each other. That being said, a solid wedge model is likely to deliver sturdy, uniform support. 
  • Using pillows to keep one position. The best way to sleep with broken ribs is to remain still. Moving and turning can put pressure on the injured ribs and, thus, can lead to aggravated pain. So, it might be a good time to remember how you used to build pillow forts when you were little. Only this time, you need to build a fort around yourself. Placing a pillow under each arm can prevent sleepers from rolling to one side during the night. Adding a pillow under the knees can also help secure your position. As an alternative, sleepers can place two body pillows on each side to serve as barriers. However, this option doesn’t feel comfortable for everyone, so it might be good to experiment with different setups.

A quick note: it is possible to sleep on one side with broken ribs, but you need to be very careful and try this position only if it doesn’t cause any pain. It’s also a good idea to use extra pillows to achieve proper alignment and support. For instance, a pillow between the knees will help align the hips. Sleepers can also hug a pillow to prevent the arm from pressing into the aching ribs.

Other Ways to Sleep with Broken Ribs Peacefully

Aside from adopting a comfortable sleeping style, users can try a few extra tricks that may help them sleep with multiple broken ribs. Here are a couple of examples:

  • Controlled breathing. Breathing deeply can cause more pain, so it’s crucial to be careful when preparing for sleep. Users can try diaphragmatic breathing, which doesn’t cause pressure on the rib cage but helps deliver oxygen to the furthest extent of the lungs (14). Additionally, diaphragmatic breathing is proven effective for stress relief (15). Therefore, practicing this breathing technique before bed can help sleepers calm down and drift off to sleep more easily.
  • Relaxation before bed. Research suggests that pre-sleep cognitive arousal can affect one’s sleep quality even more than pain levels (16). Thus, it is essential for people with broken ribs to relax before sleep. And there are plenty of ways to achieve that. You can try meditation, taking a warm shower, reading, journaling, aromatherapy, etc. It’s better to avoid screens, though, as they can cause delayed bedtime or decreased total duration of sleep (17). As an alternative, sleepers can use a blue light filter on the devices they use in the evenings.
  • Healthy sleep hygiene. Sleeping and waking up at consistent hours can help the body maintain its natural clock’s timing (18). In other words, a healthy sleep schedule can help you fall asleep faster, wake up easier, and enjoy better sleep quality. 
  • Cold therapy. Applying an ice pack to the affected rib area before sleep can help reduce swelling and, consequently, pain (19). It’s a simple remedy that can help numb the pain for long enough to allow users to fall asleep peacefully.
  • Pain medication. Naturally, pain meds should be taken only according to the doctor’s recommendations and prescription. However, this is one of the easiest ways to relieve pain before bed and, thus, sleep better.

F.A.Q.

How long does it take for broken ribs to stop hurting?

Typically, broken ribs take several weeks to heal.

Why do broken ribs hurt more during the night?

The main reason why injured ribs may hurt more during the night is that we can’t control our movement when we sleep. Therefore, it’s easy to apply pressure and hurt the affected ribs. Additionally, it’s easier to get distracted from the pain during the day when we move more and get busy with our daily activities. However, when lying down, nothing distracts us from pain, and it becomes more noticeable.

Is a heating pad good for broken ribs?

Using an ice pack is preferable when it comes to broken ribs. A heating pack can contribute to the inflammatory process inside.

Summary

It goes without saying that dealing with broken ribs is not a pleasant scenario.

But as soon as you learn how to sleep with broken ribs right, the path to recovery should be less stressful. All you need to do is find a comfy position, practice relaxation techniques, and pick a good pain management tool with your doctor.

Are you currently dealing with broken ribs? What is your favorite and most comfortable sleep position? Let us know in the comments!

References:

  1. American Sleep Association (n.d.). Sleep and Sleep Disorder Statistics. Retrieved from https://www.sleepassociation.org/about-sleep/sleep-statistics/
  2. Abby Norman (May 20, 2020). The Difference Between Bruised, Broken, and Fractured Ribs. Retrieved from https://www.verywellhealth.com/bruised-broken-or-fractured-ribs-4582241#chest-anatomy
  3. Tyler Wheeler (December 18, 2020). Do I have a Broken Rib? Retrieved from https://www.webmd.com/a-to-z-guides/do-i-have-a-broken-rib
  4. The National Health Service (January 05, 2021). Broken or bruised ribs. Retrieved from https://www.nhs.uk/conditions/broken-or-bruised-ribs/
  5. Amanda Barrell (August 20, 2019). Everything you need to know about broken ribs. Retrieved from https://www.medicalnewstoday.com/articles/326109#overview
  6. University of North Carolina Wilmington, Abrons Student Health Center (n.d.). Instruction sheet: rib/chest bruise. Retrieved from https://uncw.edu/healthservices/documents/instructionsheet-riborchestbruise512.pdf
  7. Mohammad Keilani, Richard Crevenna & Thomas Ernst Dorner (September 07, 2017). Sleep quality in subjects suffering from chronic pain. Retrieved from https://link.springer.com/article/10.1007/s00508-017-1256-1
  8. Becky Upham (March 17, 2021). 8 Health Problems Linked to Not Getting Enough Sleep. Retrieved from https://www.everydayhealth.com/sleep/ways-not-getting-enough-sleep-is-bad-for-your-health/
  9. Yasmin Anwar (January 28, 2019). Sleep loss heightens pain sensitivity, dulls brain’s painkilling response. Retrieved from https://news.berkeley.edu/2019/01/28/sleep-pain-connection/
  10. James Roland (August 28, 2018). How to Heal a Broken Rib. Retrieved from https://www.healthline.com/health/broken-rib
  11. Christine M. Swanson, Wendy M. Kohrt, Orfeu M. Buxton, Carol A. Everson, Kenneth P. Wright, Jr., Eric S. Orwoll, and Steven A. Shea (December 09, 2017). The Importance of the Circadian System & Sleep for Bone Health. Retrieved from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5994176/
  12. David J. Hill (November 14, 2019). Getting a good night’s rest is important for better bone health. Retrieved from http://www.buffalo.edu/ubnow/stories/2019/11/ochs-balcom-sleep-bmd.html
  13. Stephen Gill (February 18, 2021). How should you sleep if you have lower back pain? Retrieved from https://www.medicalnewstoday.com/articles/320870
  14. Dan Brennan (November 10, 2020). Best Exercises for Broken Ribs Recovery. Retrieved from https://www.webmd.com/a-to-z-guides/best-exercises-broken-ribs-recovery
  15. Susan Hopper, Sherrie Murray, Lucille Ferrara, and Joanne K. Singleton (September 2019). Effectiveness of diaphragmatic breathing for reducing physiological and psychological stress in adults: a quantitative systematic review. Retrieved from https://journals.lww.com/jbisrir/fulltext/2019/09000/effectiveness_of_diaphragmatic_breathing_for.6.aspx
  16. M. T. Smith, M. L. Perlis, M. S. Smith, D. E. Giles & T. P. Carmody (February 2000). Sleep Quality and Presleep Arousal in Chronic Pain. Retrieved from https://link.springer.com/article/10.1023/A:1005444719169
  17. Lauren Hale, Gregory W. Kirschen, Monique K. LeBourgeois, Michael Gradisar, Michelle M. Garrison, Hawley Montgomery-Downs, Howard Kirschen, Susan M. McHale, Anne-Marie Chang, and Orfeu M. Buxtonj (April 01, 2019). Youth screen media habits and sleep: sleep-friendly screen-behavior recommendations for clinicians, educators, and parents. Retrieved from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5839336/
  18. Division of Sleep Medicine at Harvard Medical School (December 12, 2008). Adopt Good Sleep Habits. Retrieved from https://healthysleep.med.harvard.edu/need-sleep/what-can-you-do/good-sleep-habits
  19. Medicine Plus Medical Encyclopedia (March 28, 2020). Rib fracture – aftercare. Retrieved from https://medlineplus.gov/ency/patientinstructions/000539.htm

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