The ribcage – also known as the thoracic cage or thoracic basket – is easily thought of as just a framework protecting your lungs, heart and other major organs. Although that is one key function, the ribcage does so much more. It provides vital support as part of the skeleton and, simply put, breathing wouldn’t be possible without it.
All this means that the ribcage has to be flexible. The conical structure isn’t just a rigid system of bone – it’s both bone and cartilage. The cage comprises 24 ribs, joining in the back to the 12 vertebrae making up the middle of the spinal column. The cartilage portions of the ribs meet in the front at the long, flat threebone plate called the sternum (breastbone). Or rather, most of them do. Rib pairs one through seven are called ‘true ribs’ because they attach directly to the sternum. Rib pairs eight through ten attach indirectly through other cartilage structures, so they’re referred to as ‘false ribs’. The final two pairs – the ‘floating ribs’ – hang unattached to the sternum.
Rib fractures are a common and very painful injury, with the middle ribs the most likely ones to get broken. A fractured rib can be very dangerous, because a sharp piece could pierce the heart or lungs. There’s also a condition called flail chest, in which several ribs break and detach from the cage, which can even be fatal. But otherwise there’s not much you can do to mend a fractured rib other than keep it stabilised (usually by wrapping or taping), resting and giving it enough time to heal.