I recently received an enquiry from a subscriber regarding stress fractures of the ribs. His particular interest was stress fractures in rowers, which are a common occurrence for these athletes.
So I’ll take this opportunity to describe rib stress fractures, the reasons why they happen and what can be done about these types of injuries.
Stress fractures to the ribs occur in rowers, golfer, canoeists, lacrosse players and baseball pitchers. They are more common in sports involving an element of trunk rotation with scapula movement across the rib cage.
A stress fracture is described as an overload to the bone caused by repetitive loading due to a particular movement. Any load on the bone will create a stress in the bone. However, given enough recovery time the bone heals and ends up stronger. This is known as Wolfe’s law. But, if the bone load is too high or too frequent, then the bone does not repair quickly enough, a stress response occurs and a fracture follows.
In rowing, the repetitive loading is created by a number of factors. Muscles such as the serratus anterior and abdominals that directly attach to the ribs can lead to loading on the ribcage due to contraction. Bad rowing technique, perhaps caused by poor hip flexibility, which then requires an excessive compensatory thoracic rotation, may then lead to rib breakdown.
Other causes include equipment issues such as the oar type (lighter carbon oars increase rib loading), bigger boats with more drag and position in the boat (bow rowers have less incidence due to lower stroke rate and force). Rib cross section and density also influence the chance of stress fractures, and women have a higher chance due to greater likelihood of bone density issues. Finally, training variables such as volume, intensity, type of loading and off water training can also be factors in stress fracture development.
The signs and symptoms are usually straight forward. These include generalised rib pain with a focused spot of tenderness, pain rolling onto the ribs whilst sleeping and pain with deep breathing. They can be confirmed with bone scan (black spot) and/or MRI (white spot).
Unfortunately for the rower, the immediate management of the injury involves rest. Usually 4-6 weeks away from rowing will be enough to allow some bone healing and this is followed by a progressive increase in rowing load over another 4 weeks before the athlete is back to full training.