It is a common complaint caused by factors ranging from a fractured rib to lung cancer.
Pain associated with the rib cage can be sudden and sharp or dull and painful. In some cases, pain can wrap around the ribs and cause back pain.
Many cases of rib cage pain are unrelated to severe conditions and resolve on their own or with minimal treatment. Others, however, are medical emergencies that require immediate intervention.
The rib cage
The rib cage protects the heart and lungs from damage. The rib cage consists of 24 ribs, 12 on each side, and protects the organs of the chest, including the heart and lungs, from damage.
The ribs are attached to the sternum, the long bone that runs down the center of the chest. They are joined in the front by cartilage, a firm but flexible tissue. In the back, they adhere to the spine.
The liver is located at the lower end of the rib cage on the right and the spleen on the left. Both receive some protection from the rib bones. The gallbladder and kidneys are located just below the rib cage.
If any of the components of the rib cage, including bones or cartilage, or nearby organs, are affected by injury or disease, the person will have pain in or near the rib cage.
Rib cage pain on the left or right side of the chest is a common symptom that many people experience. The most common cause of sharp or dull pain in the rib cage is a pulled muscle or a fractured rib.
Injuries to the rib cage or upper chest muscles can cause rib pain, ranging from a dull ache to sudden shooting pains in the affected area.
This can lead to chest pain and tenderness in the rib cage until the injury heals. In some cases, the pain can envelop the ribs causing pain in the back ribs.
Although most cases of rib cage pain are nothing to worry about, you should never ignore any unexplained chest pain.
Even if the annoying chest aches and pains result from inflammation in the rib joints, it is always best to see a doctor to be on the safe side.
Some causes of pain under the rib cage can indicate a severe condition. For example, a broken or fractured rib could damage any of the organs in the rib cage.
This can result in a collapsed lung, an enlarged spleen, or damage to the liver or kidneys, which will cause anything from mild aches to sharp throbbing pains under the ribs. Also, some causes of rib cage pain can signify an impending heart attack.
What are the symptoms of rib pain?
Rib cage pain can occur anywhere below the ribs, upper or lower chest, or above the belly button.
Sometimes dull to sharp pains can radiate to other body parts such as the shoulder blade, left arm, or back. You will often only feel pain on one side of your rib cage.
Some symptoms of rib cage pain include:
- Pain in the left side of the chest due to inflammation.
- Sharp pain in the center of the chest.
- Pressure in the center of the rib cage due to heart problems.
- Sharp shooting pains in the ribs when taking deep breaths or lying down.
- Burning sensation in the center of the chest, especially after eating.
- Feeling of fullness under the rib cage.
- Tenderness around the breastbone.
- Sudden and severe pain under the ribs.
Depending on the cause of your rib pain, you may also experience nausea, dizziness, abdominal cramps, shortness of breath, or fever.
Possible low-risk causes of rib pain
There are many possible causes of rib cage pain. A doctor will diagnose the underlying cause through a physical exam and scans.
Fortunately, most causes of left rib cage pain or right rib cage pain are not as serious as a heart attack, a broken rib, or a severe lung condition.
Let’s look at some of the less severe causes of rib cage pain. Common reasons for rib cage pain include:
Pulls in the chest muscles
One of the most common causes of rib pain is an injury to the rib cage. This could be as simple as a pulled muscle or as serious as a broken rib or broken rib.
Of course, pulled chest muscles are not usually a cause for concern. However, a fractured or broken rib may need to be examined by a medical professional.
Pulls in the chest muscles. Your chest contains muscle groups known as your “pectorals” that support your rib cage and upper body.
Overstretching the arms, sudden jerky movements or overuse injuries can pull, strain, or tear the chest muscles. Some symptoms of pulled chest muscles include:
- Pain in the rib cage when you are resting.
- Swelling, bruising, or redness around the affected area.
- Muscle spasms or cramps in the upper chest.
- Weakness in the arms
- Pulling or injury to the intercostal muscles.
The intercostal muscles are located between your ribs, support your upper body, and help you breathe.
Sudden jerky movements or overstretching can strain the intercostal muscles and cause mild to severe rib pain. The pain can wrap around the ribs and spread to the back, causing rib pain in the back.
The most common cause of rib cage pain is chest injury from falls, traffic collisions, and sports contact. The types of damage include:
- Broken ribs.
- Bruised ribs.
- Fractured ribs.
A more severe chest injury that can cause rib pain on the left or right side is a broken, fractured, or bruised rib. The chest contains the ribs, the sternum, and the xiphoid process.
A broken rib has the potential to damage blood vessels or internal organs under the rib cage. Broken ribs are not that serious. However, they will cause sharp pains on the affected side of the rib cage.
Pain in the rib cage that begins after an injury is usually diagnosed with an X-ray to highlight fractures and bone fractures. MRIs and other scans can detect soft tissue damage.
Costochondritis or Tietze syndrome is another common cause of rib cage pain.
This condition is characterized by inflammation of the cartilage in the rib cage. It generally occurs in the cartilage that joins the upper ribs to the sternum, the coeternal joint area.
Pain in the rib cage due to costochondritis ranges from mild to severe. Symptoms include tenderness and pain when touching the chest area. Severe cases can lead to pain that radiates to the extremities or pain that interferes with daily life.
Some cases of costochondritis resolve without treatment, while others require medical intervention.
Pleurisy, also known as pleurisy, is an inflammatory condition that affects the linings of the lungs and chest.
The pleura are thin tissues that line the wall of the chest and lungs. In their healthy state, they glide smoothly over each other. However, the inflammation causes them to rub, causing significant pain.
Since the advent of antibiotics, pleurisy has been much less common than it used to be. Even when it does occur, it is often a mild condition that resolves independently. Pleurisy usually lasts from a few days to two weeks.
Other inflammatory conditions of the lungs, such as bronchitis, can also cause pain around the rib cage.
This is a chronic condition that causes pain throughout the body. The American College of Rheumatology estimates that fibromyalgia affects between 2 and 4 percent of people, up to 90 percent of whom are women.
The pain associated with fibromyalgia can be burning, throbbing, stabbing, or painful. These pains are commonly felt in the rib cage, although any body part can be affected.
Some research suggests that nonspecific chest pain, including pain in the rib cage, is the most common coexisting condition leading to hospital admission in fibromyalgia patients.
A pulmonary embolism (PE) is when an artery to the lungs becomes blocked. The blockage is often caused by a blood clot that has traveled up from one of the legs.
In addition to pain in the rib cage, a pulmonary embolism can cause the following symptoms:
- Difficulty breathing.
- Fast breathing.
- Cough, including coughing up blood.
- Irregular heartbeat
A pulmonary embolism is a serious condition that can damage the lungs and other organs due to reduced oxygen in the blood. Anyone experiencing the symptoms of pulmonary embolism should see a doctor.
The National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute estimates that 30 percent of people who develop pulmonary embolism will die without treatment. Fortunately, prompt diagnosis and treatment can prevent complications.
However, there are many reasons other than problems with one of your organs why pain can occur under the rib cage.
For example, rib cage pain can also result from a broken rib, broken ribs, bruised ribs, or pulled muscles in the chest.
The pain may be noticeable immediately after injury to the rib cage area, or it may develop gradually over time and even radiate to the upper or middle back.
Left versus right rib cage pain
Because rib cage pain can occur anywhere below the ribs, it can sometimes be challenging to identify precisely which side of the chest the pain is originating from.
However, depending on the reason for the pain in the rib cage, the pain may be felt only on the left side or in the right rib cage.
Pain on the left side under the ribs
Pain in the left side of the body below the ribs can cause panic due to the possibility that it is a pain related to the heart.
While it’s true that left-sided rib cage pain could be a sign of angina or another severe heart problem, there are other reasons for the pain.
The heart is located below the ribs, slightly to the left of the middle of the chest. If heart-related problems cause chest pain, it will feel tightness, pressure, or tightness in the chest below the left rib cage.
Generally, the pain will spread to the left arm, jaw, and neck.
However, the left lung, spleen, and left kidney are protected by the left rib cage. Any condition that affects these organs will cause mild to severe aches and pains under the left ribs.
Of course, blunt trauma to the left ribs or a pulled muscle will cause localized pain on the left side. You may also notice that your ribs are tender or sore to the touch.
Pain on the right side under the ribs
The main reasons for painful aches or sharp stabbing pains in the right rib cage are chest injuries, such as a pulled muscle or an injury to the ribs.
Damaging your right-hand ribs will hurt when you press on the injured rib. Sometimes the injury can cause inflammation in the ribs and breastbone, making rib pain worse.
The liver, right lung, right kidney, and gallbladder lie below the right rib cage.
Disease, inflammation, or damage to any organs can cause pain on the right side under the chest wall that can feel like a pain in the rib cage.
High-risk causes of rib cage pain or pain under the ribs
Let’s take a closer look at some of the severe causes of rib cage pain. Most of the following causes of rib pain require a medical examination to diagnose the extent and severity of the condition.
An impending heart attack will usually cause crushing pains below the upper left ribs and spread to your left arm.
Symptoms of a heart attack can appear gradually over a few days or weeks, or they can cause sudden chest pains.
The other symptoms of a heart attack that affect both men and women include:
- Jaw pain, headache, and shoulder pain.
- Difficulty breathing or gasping for breath.
- Nausea and vomiting.
- Heartburn symptoms such as a burning sensation under the ribs.
- Pain in the upper back.
It is essential to get immediate medical attention if you suspect that your chest pain is related to the heart. Immediate medical help can be a matter of life and death.
You can significantly reduce your risk of a heart attack by making simple lifestyle changes.
Pleurisy is inflammation of the lining of the lungs and can cause shooting pains under the left or right rib cage. Pleurisy is often the result of lung infections, pulmonary embolism, or cancer.
Pain under the ribs occurs when nerve fibers in the pleura become irritated and painful. In addition to causing severe, stabbing pain under the ribs, pleurisy can also cause the following symptoms:
- Severe rib cage pain that is worse when you inhale or cough.
- Tenderness on the side of the rib cage where inflammation occurs.
Back or shoulder blade pain
Although pleurisy usually doesn’t cause any severe complications, the severe chest pain it causes can affect your daily activities. Doctors generally treat the underlying cause of pleurisy to eliminate discomfort.
Lung atelectasis is a potentially severe condition that will cause sharp stabbing pains on one side of the chest. A collapsed lung (or pneumothorax) occurs when air enters the cavity between the lung and the chest wall. The pressure causes the lung to collapse, resulting in sudden pain under the rib cage.
A collapsed lung can be caused by infection, asthma, injury to the rib cage, or lung disease. This usually only affects one lung, and stabbing chest pains will be felt on that side of the ribs.
Aside from rib pain, a collapsed lung can also cause some of the following symptoms:
- Difficulty breathing or shallow breathing.
- Fast breathing.
- Fast heartbeat
- Constant cough
- Blue-colored skin.
One reason for acute pain in the right rib cage is high blood pressure, called pulmonary hypertension. This type of high blood pressure is caused when the heart works hard to pump blood to the lungs.
One of the symptoms of pulmonary hypertension is a pain in the upper abdomen just below the right ribs. You may also have the following symptoms:
- Difficulty breathing when doing your daily activities.
- Fast heartbeat
- Decreased appetite.
- Swelling of the ankles
Keeping your cardiovascular system healthy by exercising regularly, eating a well-balanced diet, and maintaining a healthy weight can help prevent pulmonary hypertension.
In rare cases, rib cage pain could signify lung cancer. However, it is essential to note that rib pain is not a sign of lung cancer. According to Cancer Research UK, some of the possible symptoms of lung cancer are:
- Coughing up blood or mucus
- Chest or shoulder pain
- Unexplained weight loss
- Recurrent chest infections.
Lung cancer is the second most common cancer in the United States.
One of the symptoms of lung cancer is a pain in the rib cage or chest pain that worsens with deep breathing, coughing, or laughing. Other symptoms to look out for include shortness of breath and wheezing.
The prognosis for lung cancer is poorer than other cancer types, and it is the leading cause of cancer death in both men and women.
People with early-stage lung cancer have a better chance of being cured, highlighting the importance of early intervention.
Metastatic lung cancer, or cancer that begins in one area and spreads to the lungs, is a life-threatening condition. It will also cause pain in the rib cage or chest.
Pain in the rib cage
Rib cage pain can occur in the chest, below the ribs, or above the belly button. As there are several different causes of rib cage pain, the symptoms can vary. As a result, the pain can be:
- Slow development.
- It gets worse when you inhale or move.
Other symptoms that affect the rib cage can include:
- Difficulty breathing.
Rib cage pain can be attributed to many underlying medical conditions or injuries. A person should always consult a doctor in any unexplained pain in the rib cage.