HOBOKEN, NJ – No, Broken Ribs, Rugby and Acupuncture is not the man’s version of Eat, Pray, Love… But it might be, in a way… See, last November a shiny-headed friend convinced me to come out and play in the NY Seven’s Tournament. I did not have my best outing but in the third game I finally was in the clear, two feet from the tryline, when a much younger French Canadian player caught me, and tackled me. I heard a “crack.” My first thought was, ‘Holy Sh*t. I’m slow.’ Then I tried to roll off tap the ball and score, when I tried to push off the ground I collapsed. I then heard the comforting words from Matt McCarthy (the aforementioned shiny-headed one), “You run like you are in wet sand up to your knees.” I laughed and it hurt. I coughed and it hurt. I moved and it hurt. I knew the next few weeks were not going to be pleasant.
It’s Going To Hurt!
There are several different degrees of rib injuries from bruising to displaced, and none of them are particularly pleasant. Depending on the actual injury, the timeline for healing can vary greatly. An X-ray is the usual method to confirm a rib fracture. However, the worst part about a rib injury is that it isn’t just bone that is affected, it is everything in the thoracic cavity that attaches to the ribs that is affected. The muscles, bones, cartilage, tendons, ligaments, all of these structures are connected to the rib cage and every time you take a breath, cough, laugh, sneeze or move, your ribs move with you.
Think about an accordion: when you fill it with air it expands, and when you press on it the air escapes and the accordion collapses. Your rib cage is like the shell of the accordion, as the lungs fill with air the ribs expand and as you exhale your ribs fall back into their normal place. So even something like breathing can be very painful when you have a rib injury. This is very important, because this is how acupuncture can help with rib fractures and rib injuries.
When I was tackled my body went into protection mode and seized up all the muscles around my thoracic cavity in order to protect the internal organs and not allow the rib to separate and puncture my lung. I thank my body for protecting me during the impact, but afterwards my body didn’t know that it was no longer in danger of eminent harm. So the muscles remained in spasm and hurt like…well lets just say it was pretty uncomfortable.
The conventional solution
At the hospital I learned two things, one you are no longer supposed to tape a rib injury because it can lead to pneumonia and that Tylenol with codeine and lipoderm patches are the standard medicine given for a fractured rib. I don’t like Tylenol with codeine so I stuck with extra strength Tylenol and Advil for the pain and swelling and I used the Lipoderm patches on the painful area around the fracture. This would help a little but I was still in a lot of pain and had limited rang of motion with my movements, including having issues standing, bending and twisting.
An Alternative Approach
Since I am a certified Sports Medicine Acupuncturist® I decided to try a few other healing methods in addition to the recommendations of the emergency room doctor. First, I took Zheng Gu Tui Na: Die Da Wan, Trauma Formula, these are herbs mixed with honey and formed into pills that are meant for acute traumatic injuries to the body. They increase the flow of qi and blood to the area and promote healing, while reducing stagnation and inflammation. I took two pills a day for two days. I was still having issues moving, coughing, taking deep breaths, and sneezing.
Day 2: I started a 5 day regiment of drinking a rib fracture herbal formula from the book A Tooth From The Tiger’s Mouth. This is a combination of herbs that are brewed into a tea and then taken twice a day. It doesn’t taste great but it works wonders for the pain and inflammation associated with a rib injury.
Day 3: I stopped taking any Tylenol or Advil. I still used a Lipoderm patch to sleep, because any pressure on my ribs caused pain.
Day 4: Breakthrough day. I had another colleague perform acupuncture on my entire back, ribs, and neck. My colleague used trigger point acupuncture and released all of the muscles that were in spasm, the erectors, the traps, the lats, infraspinatus, and even the intercostal muscles. After the treatment I stood up from the table and couldn’t believe the difference in pain reduction. I could cough, move, bend, breath and even sneeze without a terrible amount of pain. I still had a constant pressure pain on the area where the rib had broken and at the sternum where the ribs attached, but overall the pain was minimal.
WARNING: If you are seeking this kind of therapy, always check to make sure your acupuncturist or therapist has very intense training in trigger point release – also known as Intra Muscular Stimulation or Dry Needling. Some practitioners are attempting these techniques after only taking a weekend course. If not performed by an experienced practitioner, needling of trigger points can be dangerous and cause nerve damage, pneumothorax, and arterial or organ perforation.
Day 5: Virtually pain free with most daily activity. There is some pain at the sternum with some movement and pressure pain at the site of the break but no pain with other movements.
Day 6-12: I only felt pain upon awakening. On Days 9 and 12 I had a Chiropractor adjust the rib heads at the sternum and at the spine on both sides that were out of alignment. This was not pleasant but after the initial pain and soreness from the adjustment, I felt better.
It took about two weeks for me to be pretty much pain free; the doctor had told me 3-6 weeks. I still had slight pain and stiffness in the area for about three to four more days at the site of the fracture when I woke up in the morning, but this usually went away with a hot shower.
Acupuncture can speed up the healing process of a rib fracture. The acupuncture itself is not going to knit a bone back together, but it will relieve the muscle and tendon pain that is associated with the injury. Being able to breathe, sneeze and function at almost 100% while the bone heals is better then carrying all that extra pain and discomfort with you for the 3-6 weeks it takes the bone to heal. So, the next time you or someone you know injures a rib, tell them to call an acupuncturist for some major pain relief.
To learn more about how acupuncture can help sports injuries and increase your performance contact the Maynard Clinic of Acupuncture for all of your acupuncture questions.
Here’s an entertaining clip about the NY 7s.