In most cases, rib injuries are diagnosed based on the patient's symptoms and history plus a physical examination, reports Patient. Imaging tests are usually unnecessary and are only used to check for complications.
Most rib injuries are caused by trauma, such as a fall, reports NHS Choices. Severe coughing can also cause them. Most are mild and heal on their own with minimal treatment, so many people do not even need to see a doctor. There may be an external bruise or swelling, but some injuries are not visible. The most obvious symptom is pain, especially when breathing in, coughing or laughing.
If the patient does seek medical help, the doctor may press gently on the painful area to feel for any irregularities, reports Mayo Clinic. This is often followed by listening to the lungs and watching the patient breathe to make sure there are no complications. In some cases, the doctor may then order an X-ray. However, rib fractures are hard to see on X-rays, and soft tissue damage may not be visible, so the doctor may also order a more detailed scan, such as computerized tomography.
Patients should always see a doctor immediately if they are having trouble breathing, are coughing up blood or mucus, or if they were in a serious accident, notes NHS Choices. Increasing pain, a fever or pain that continues for more than a few weeks are also signs to seek help.