Rib cage pain may be sharp, dull, or achy and felt at
or below the chest or above the navel on either side. It may occur after an
obvious injury or without explanation.
Rib cage pain can be due to anything from pulled muscles to
a rib fracture. This pain may occur immediately upon injury or develop slowly
over time. It can also be a sign of an underlying medical condition, so you
should report any instance of unexplainable rib cage pain to your doctor
What causes rib cage pain?
The most common causes of rib cage pain are a pulled muscle
or bruised ribs. Other causes of pain in the rib cage area are:
- broken ribs
- injuries to the chest
- rib fractures
- diseases that affect the bones, such as
- inflammation of the lining of the lungs
- muscle spasms
- inflamed rib cartilage
How is rib cage pain diagnosed?
When you see a doctor, describe the type of pain you’re
experiencing and the movements that make the pain worse. The type of pain
you’re experiencing as well as the area of pain can help the doctor determine
which tests will help them make a diagnosis.
If your pain started after an injury, your doctor might
order an imaging scan such as an X-ray. An X-ray can show evidence of fractures
or abnormalities in the bones. If there are any abnormalities on your X-ray,
such as an abnormal growth, your doctor will order a soft tissue imaging scan,
such as an MRI. An MRI scan gives the doctor a detailed view of the rib cage
and surrounding muscles, organs, and tissue.
If your pain is chronic, your doctor may order a bone scan. A
doctor usually orders a bone scan if they feel that bone cancer may
be causing the pain. For this examination, your doctor will inject you with a small abount of radioactive dye called a tracer. Your doctor then uses a special
camera to scan your body for the tracer. The image from this camera will
highlight any abnormalities in your bones.
What are the treatment options for rib cage pain?
The recommended treatment for rib cage pain depends on the cause
of the pain. If the rib cage pain is due to a minor injury such as a pulled
muscle or bruise you can use a cold compress on the area to reduce swelling. If
you’re in significant pain, you can also take over-the-counter pain
relievers such as acetaminophen (Tylenol).
If over-the-counter medicine doesn't relieve pain from an injury, your doctor can prescribe other medications. You may also receive a compression wrap. A compression wrap is a
large, elastic bandage that wraps around your chest. The compression wrap holds
the area tightly to prevent further injury and greater pain. However, these
wraps are necessary in rare cases because the tightness of the compression wrap
makes it difficult to breathe. This can increase your risk of pneumonia.
If bone cancer is causing the pain, your doctor will discuss
treatment options with you based on the location of the cancer, whether it has
spread, or if there are any abnormal growths present. Your doctor may suggest
surgery to remove abnormal growths.
In some cases, surgical removal isn’t possible or may be too
dangerous. In these cases, the doctor may choose to shrink them using
chemotherapy or radiation therapy. Once the growth is small enough, they may
then remove it surgically.
When to see your doctor
Rib cage pain may be apparent with no movement. You may also
experience sharp pain when breathing in or when moving into a certain position.
Contact your doctor immediately if you experience severe
pain when breathing in or moving your body into a specific position, or if you
have any difficulty breathing. If you feel pressure or have pain in your chest
along with rib cage discomfort, seek emergency help. These symptoms may be the
sign of an impending heart attack.
Call 911 if you’ve recently fallen and you have difficulty
and pain upon breathing, along with significant bruising in your chest area.
How can I prevent
rib cage pain?
You can prevent rib cage pain due to muscle strains or
sprains by stretching your muscles, using exercise equipment properly, and
staying hydrated. If an illness is causing your rib cage pain, get plenty of rest and follow
your doctor’s treatment plan. Self-care treatments, such as applying ice to
injuries or taking hot baths to relax, can also help prevent pain.
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