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 caused by a variety of things, ranging from pulled muscles to a rib fracture.
The pain may occur immediately upon injury or develop slowly over time. It can also be a sign of an underlying medical condition. You should report any instance of unexplainable rib cage pain to your doctor immediately.
The most common causes of rib cage pain are a pulled muscle or bruised ribs. Other causes of pain in the rib cage area may include:
When talking to your 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 your doctor determine which tests will help them make a diagnosis.
If any abnormalities, such as an abnormal growth, show up on your X-ray or during your physical examination, your doctor will order a soft tissue imaging scan, such as an MRI. An MRI scan gives the doctor a detailed view of your rib cage and surrounding muscles, organs, and tissue.
If you’re experiencing chronic pain, your doctor may order a bone scan. Your doctor will order a bone scan if they feel that bone cancer may be causing the pain. For this examination, they will inject you with a small amount of radioactive dye called a tracer.
Your doctor will then use a special camera to scan your body for the tracer. The image from this camera will highlight any bone abnormalities.
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, as well as 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 only 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 type of cancer and origin of the cancer. Determining the origin of the cancer will you’re your doctor whether it started in the rib or spread from another area of the body. Your doctor may suggest surgery to remove or biopsy abnormal growths.
In some cases, surgical removal isn’t possible or may be too dangerous. In these cases, your doctor may choose to shrink them using chemotherapy or radiation therapy. Once the growth is small enough, they may then remove it surgically.
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, call 911. These symptoms may be the sign of an impending heart attack.
If you’ve recently fallen and you have difficulty and pain while breathing, along with significant bruising in your chest area, call 911 immediately as well.
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.