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Rib Cage Pain

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 immediately.

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 osteoporosis
  • 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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Content licensed from:

Written by: April Kahn
Medically reviewed on: Feb 29, 2016: George Krucik, MD, MBA

This feature is for informational purposes only and should not be used to replace the care and information received from your health care provider. Please consult a health care professional with any health concerns you may have.
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