85 year-old Ruth Bader Ginsburg just broke three ribs in a fall — here's why rib fractures in older adults can be so dangerous

Allison Shelley/GettySupreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg fell in her office Wednesday, breaking three ribs.
  • Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg has been admitted to the hospital after falling in her office and breaking three ribs.
  • This is the second time the 85-year-old has broken her ribs – the first being in 2012.
  • Many are concerned for Ginsburg, as complications and deaths linked to rib fractures are more common in older adults than in younger people.

Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg fell in her office and broke three ribs Wednesday night, according to a statement from the court’s public information office.

Though the 85-year-old went home after the fall, she has since been admitted to George Washington University Hospital, after experiencing “extreme discomfort overnight.” She is currently being held for observation.

This is not the first time Ginsburg has sustained an injury to her ribs. In August 2012, Reuters reported that the then 78-year-old fractured two ribs in June of that year. Ginsburg said she, “thought it was nothing,” and was quickly back at work.


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“She indeed did not skip a beat and did not feel it rose to a serious health concern,” Kathy Arberg, a court public information officer, told Reuters at the time.

Ginsburg is older now and, as a result, may not be able to “bounce back” as quickly as she once did. Here is why breaking ribs – or any bone – at an older age is such a concern.

Rib fractures typically heal on their own, but can have serious complications

Broken or fractured ribs are a common injury typically caused by chest trauma, such as a fall, a car accident, or impact sustained during contact sports, according to the Mayo Clinic.

Many “broken” ribs are actually cracked, which makes them less dangerous than ribs that actually break into separate pieces. In the latter case, the broken bone’s edges can injure major blood vessels or organs, including the lungs, spleen, liver, or kidneys.

Those who break three or more adjacent ribs can also develop a serious condition called flail chest, in which the broken part of the chest can’t hold its shape. That can make it harder to breathe, according to the University of Michigan’s Health Library.

Most of the time, fractured ribs heal on their own over the course of six weeks. During that time, patients with broken ribs can take pain-relieving medications. This is a crucial part of treatmen, because if it hurts to breathe deeply,patients may develop pneumonia.

The risk of complications or death is higher in older adults

muratart/ShutterstockThe area highlighted in red shows what fractured ribs look like on an x-ray.

Rib fractures are among the most common bone breaks in older adults, according to the Mayo Clinic’s Health Letter.

Older adults who get rib fractures have longer hospital stays as a result of the injury and are at higher risk for complications like respiratory failure and pneumonia, according to emergency medicine expert Dr. Christina L. Shenvi, who wrote about the topic in a post for Academic Life in Emergency Medicine.

The Mayo Clinic Health Letter said about 30 to 35% of people over 65 who have rib fractures develop pneumonia, which can be life-threatening.

Some research shows the risk of death associated with rib fracture is indeed higher in older adults. In her post, Shevni cited a study published in 2000 which found rib fractures had a 10% mortality rate in patients 18 through 64 – but a 22% mortality rate in patients older than 65. In that study, having multiple fractured ribs also increased the odds of dying.

A review published in 2012 also concluded that being over the age of 65 is a risk factor for death in patients who experience blunt chest wall trauma. (Researchers also cited fracturing three or more ribs and having a pre-existing health condition as risk factors.)

These serious complications aren’t necessarily exclusive to severe chest injuries, like those that can occur during a car crash. They may even happen after mild to moderate trauma, such as a fall from standing, according to the Mayo Clinic.

“While rib fractures from mild or moderate trauma or repetitive movement may seem less severe, they are still painful and can lead to serious complications,” the Mayo Clinic Health Letter said. “Even when not an emergency, it’s important to seek care for a suspected rib fracture to determine treatment and help avoid complications.”

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