Rib stress fractures among rowers: definition, epidemiology, mechanisms, risk factors and effectiveness of injury prevention strategies

Sports Med. 2011 Nov 1;41(11):883-901. doi: 10.2165/11593170-000000000-00000.


Rib stress fractures (RSFs) can have serious effects on rowing training and performance and accordingly represent an important topic for sports medicine practitioners. Therefore, the aim of this review is to outline the definition, epidemiology, mechanisms, intrinsic and extrinsic risk factors, injury management and injury prevention strategies for RSF in rowers. To this end, nine relevant books, 140 journal articles, the proceedings of five conferences and two unpublished presentations were reviewed after searches of electronic databases using the keywords 'rowing', 'rib', 'stress fracture', 'injury', 'mechanics' and 'kinetics'. The review showed that RSF is an incomplete fracture occurring from an imbalance between the rate of bone resorption and the rate of bone formation. RSF occurs in 8.1-16.4% of elite rowers, 2% of university rowers and 1% of junior elite rowers. Approximately 86% of rowing RSF cases with known locations occur in ribs four to eight, mostly along the anterolateral/lateral rib cage. Elite rowers are more likely to experience RSF than nonelite rowers. Injury occurrence is equal among sweep rowers and scullers, but the regional location of the injury differs. The mechanism of injury is multifactorial with numerous intrinsic and extrinsic risk factors contributing. Posterior-directed resultant forces arising from the forward directed force vector through the arms to the oar handle in combination with the force vector induced by the scapula retractors during mid-drive, or repetitive stress from the external obliques and rectus abdominis in the 'finish' position, may be responsible for RSF. Joint hypomobility, vertebral malalignment or low bone mineral density may be associated with RSF. Case studies have shown increased risk associated with amenorrhoea, low bone density or poor technique, in combination with increases in training volume. Training volume alone may have less effect on injury than other factors. Large differences in seat and handle velocity, sequential movement patterns, higher elbow-flexion to knee-extension strength ratios, higher seat-to-handle velocity during the initial drive, or higher shoulder angle excursion may result in RSF. Gearing may indirectly affect rib loading. Increased risk may be due to low calcium, low vitamin D, eating disorders, low testosterone or use of depot medroxyprogesterone injections. Injury management involves 1-2 weeks cessation of rowing with analgesic modalities followed by a slow return to rowing with low-impact intensity and modified pain-free training. Some evidence shows injury prevention strategies should focus on strengthening the serratus anterior, strengthening leg extensors, stretching the lumbar spine, increasing hip joint flexibility, reducing excessive protraction, training with ergometers on slides or floating-head ergometers, and calcium and vitamin D supplementation. Future research should focus on the epidemiology of RSF over 4-year Olympic cycles in elite rowers, the aetiology of the condition, and the effectiveness of RSF prevention strategies for injury incidence and performance in rowing.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't
  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Athletic Injuries / epidemiology
  • Athletic Injuries / etiology*
  • Athletic Injuries / physiopathology
  • Athletic Injuries / prevention & control*
  • Fractures, Stress / epidemiology
  • Fractures, Stress / etiology*
  • Fractures, Stress / physiopathology
  • Fractures, Stress / prevention & control*
  • Humans
  • Incidence
  • Posture / physiology
  • Rib Fractures / epidemiology
  • Rib Fractures / etiology*
  • Rib Fractures / physiopathology
  • Rib Fractures / prevention & control*
  • Risk Factors