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What causes rib pain? 8 possible conditions

What Is Rib Cage Pain?

Rib cage pain may be sharp, dull, or achy pain felt at and below the chest and above the navel on either side. It may occur after an obvious injury or without explanation.

Rib cage pain can be caused by 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 immediately.

Causes of Rib Cage Pain

The most common causes of rib cage pain are a pulled muscle or bruised ribs. Other causes of rib cage pain are:

  • broken ribs
  • injuries to the chest
  • rib fracture
  • diseases that affect the bones, such as osteoporosis
  • inflamed lining of the lungs
  • muscle spasms
  • inflamed rib cartilage

How Is Rib Cage Pain Identified?

Rib cage pain may be apparent with no movement, or you may experience sharp pain upon 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.

If you’ve recently had a fall and you have difficulty and pain upon breathing along with significant bruising in your chest area, call 911.

At the Doctor’s Office

When you see a doctor, describe the type of pain you’re experiencing and what movements 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 to run. These tests will help your doctor determine your diagnosis.

If the pain started after an injury, the doctor may order an imaging scan such as an X-ray. An X-ray can show evidence of fractures as well as abnormalities in the bones. If there are any abnormalities on your X-ray, such as an abnormal growth, the doctor will order an in-depth imaging scan like an MRI. An MRI (magnetic resonance imaging) scan gives the doctor a detailed view of the ribcage and surrounding structures such as muscles, organs, and tissue.

If your pain is chronic, the doctor may order a bone scan. A bone scan is normally performed if the doctor feels that bone cancer may be causing the pain. For this examination, your doctor will inject you with a radioactive material called a tracer. The doctor then uses a special camera to scan your body for the tracer. The image from this camera will highlight abnormalities in the bones.

Treating Ribcage Pain

The recommended treatment for ribcage pain depends on the cause of the pain. If the ribcage 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 are in a significant amount of pain, you can also take over-the-counter pain relievers such as Tylenol.

If a rib fracture or broken ribs are causing the pain and over-the-counter medication isn’t working, your doctor will prescribe pain relief medications. You may also be given a compression wrap. A compression wrap is a large elastic bandage wrapped around your chest. The compression splints the area, or holds it tight to prevent further injury and greater pain. However, these wraps are used only in rare cases because the tightness of the compression wrap makes it difficult to breathe. This can increase the 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 is not possible or is considered too dangerous. In these cases, the doctor may choose to shrink them using chemotherapy or radiation therapy. Once the growth is small enough, he or she may then remove it through surgical means.

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See a list of possible causes in order from the most common to the least.


Costochondritis (Tietze's Syndrome)

Costochondritis is inflammation of the cartilage where the ribs attach to the breastbone. Pain worsens if you move, stretch, or breathe deeply. Women and those over 40 are most commonly diagnosed with this condition.

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Pleurisy occurs when the tissues that line your lungs and chest wall become inflamed or infected, causing extreme pain. It is often treated with antibiotics.

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Osteoporosis is a bone disease due to calcium loss. As a result the bones lose strength and density. People are usually unaware that they have the condition until they experience a fracture.

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Systemic Lupus Erythematosus

Systemic lupus erythematosus (SLE) is an autoimmune disease and the most common type of lupus. One of its common symptoms is a rash on the cheeks and nose called a "butterfly rash."

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Lung Cancer Overview

Lung cancer is a cancer that originates in the lungs. Lung cancer often goes undetected in the early stages, since symptoms don't usually present themselves until the advanced stages of the disease.

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Metastatic Lung Cancer

When cancer develops, it typically forms in one part of the body. This site is known as the primary site. Unlike other cells in the body, cancer cells can break away from the primary site and travel to other parts o...

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Chronic Myelogenous Leukemia (CML)

Leukemia is a type of cancer that starts in the blood or blood-forming tissues. There are many different types of leukemia, and treatment is different for each one. Chronic leukemias are slower growing than acut...

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This condition is considered a medical emergency. Urgent care may be required.

A fracture is a broken bone that typically occurs when a bone is impacted by more force or pressure than it can support. In an open fracture, the ends of the broken bone tear the skin.

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This feature is for informational purposes only and should not be used to diagnose.
Please consult a healthcare professional if you have health concerns.