Ribs. Yum. Rib injuries, not so much. I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again: rib injuries suck. Having rib injuries is not all it’s cracked up to be. Pardon me. But I had to get it off my chest. Argh.
As I type this article in misery, I have to hold my left ribs panel firmly every time I cough. This prevents the rib from popping out of place, which I otherwise would have to push back into position. The fact that I have developed a bit of cough isn’t helping either. Let me just say, popping rib is as painful as it sounds. The stabbing sensation of a popped rib (not pork ribs) is one hell of an excruciating pain. Although I have to admit that the jolting pain does make me feel somewhat alive.
Injuries are part and parcel of sparring but when it painfully prohibits all physical activities, it can be frustrating and annoying. I would honestly have preferred receiving a black eye or a sprained ankle or something. This particular episode all started and ended last week during sparring when I got Muay Thai teeped unnecessarily hard in the rib/chest by an overzealous partner who seems unfamiliar with the level of light, technical sparring that is the norm at the gym. This was then exacerbated by another young over-enthusiastic partner who, too, sparred like his life depended on it. Adrenaline kept me sparring till the end of the session, but by the 3rd kick to my ribs, I knew that my recurring rib injury had been triggered.
Types of Rib Injuries
Rib injuries can be minor like rib muscle strain sustained through overexertion. For beginners, it is not unusual to sustain minor rib muscle strains, especially if the core muscles are weak. These will take a few days to a week to recover. If you are able to do your sit-ups without any discomfort, you should be able to continue with training. Otherwise, it is recommended to rest it off till it’s fully healed to prevent aggravating it.
In worse cases, physical trauma from kicks to the ribs can results in injuries such as a rib cartilage fracture/dislocation (or subluxation, as in my case), intercostal muscle tear, or worse, broken ribs. Such pain are often immobilizing. Many will also experience an agonizing pop in the ribs in these instances.
Moderate and serious injuries can take between 2-4 months to heal fully. It’s a real dampener since there isn’t much you can do while you wait for it to heal. It will hurt with every sneeze, cough, laughter, getting out of bed, fart, and there’s not much exercise you can do either. In such cases, NEVER attempt to push through with training -until you are almost fully recovered- as it is guaranteed to worsen your injury and delay your healing.
Rib Injury Treatment
First of all, you should always seek professional medical opinion, especially if you experience severe pain at the injury site, persistent popping of the rib, difficulty in breathing, or nausea. In most cases, an X-Ray will be conducted to determine the severity of the injury. If there is a displacement or dislocation, the rib needs to be set back into place.
Unfortunately, there isn’t a lot that you can do to expedite the recovery process other than to rest and let your body do its thing. The doctor will usually prescribe a course of non-steroidal anti-inflammation drug (NSAIDs) or topical cream to help manage the pain. Over-the-counter medication like Ibrupofen can also help to lessen the pain.
On your own, you can perform the general PRICE treatment which is to Protect-Rest-Ice-Compress-Elevate: Firstly, be constantly mindful to protect the injury site from being aggravated. You are certainly going to need more rest if you want the injury to heal faster since the body repairs itself when it’s at rest. As soon as possible after sustaining an injury, you should start to apply an ice pack to the affected area about 4 times a day, every 2-3 hours for 10-20 minutes. This is done for the first 72 hours following the injury to prevent or reduce any swelling. Doing this also helps prevent or relieve inflammation. During this period, make sure you have sufficient rest/sleep, compress the injured area with a rib brace or compression wear, and elevate it where possible.
After the ice pack phase is done, it’s time to apply your heat pad and liniment oil. Both of these treatments will soothe the pain and ache. The purpose of heat is to draw blood to the affected area which can ideally help it to heal faster. You can do this a few times a day for 10-20 minutes each time for pain relief and healing until the pain completely subsides. Exercise caution to NOT apply the heat pad directly on your skin to avoid burns. You can also alternate between ice and heat treatment during this phase for pain relief, inflammation prevention and recovery promotion.
Safe Exercises To Perform
For many Muay Thai or fitness enthusiasts, the agony of being out of action outweighs the agony of the physical pain. There isn’t a lot of exercises and many routines can actually put you at risk of worsening the injury. In my own experience, here is a quick list of lower-limb and low-intensity exercises that I have been able to perform during these dark times to stay active and minimize muscle loss:
- Brisk walking
- Stairs climbing
- Squats, lunges, wall-sits, calf raises
- Deep breathing
- High repetition weights training with very light weights (bicep curls, overhead dumbbell extensions)
- Stretching/Light yoga
How to Prevent Rib Injuries
Once bitten, twice shy. You won’t ever forget your rib injuries, just like your first love. You want to do whatever it takes to prevent it from happening again. Unfortunately, there isn’t a hell lot you can do. If you want to prevent rib injuries, you simply need to avoid getting smashed in the ribs. My trainer’s simple and straightforward advice: check the kicks, and hand sweep or catch the teeps. I’m still learning it the hard way. Definitely going to keeping drilling these techniques when I return to sparring.
Some people, like myself, gets inflicted with rib injuries more easily than others. This article is based on my research and personal experience and I hope this information can guide you through the darkest days of your rib injuries. Godspeed and speedy recovery to you. Stay safe, and never give up the good fight.