Facts about Rib Pain


There are different types of rib pain that people experience; some are just worrisome while others can be indicators of something more serious.  There are a number of causes for this discomfort, depending on the location of the pain and the type of pain.  Pain that is experienced when a deep breath is taken or is experienced as a pain between the shoulder blades is most often found to be a problem with the ribs.


The human chest


The rib cage is the armor of the human chest that protects vital organs within, such as the heart and the lungs.  Men and women each have 24 ribs; 12 on each side that are attached in the back to the thoracic vertebrae or spine.  In the front, the upper seven ribs, also called true ribs, are attached to the breastbone.  The next three are called the false ribs, with the lower two aptly named floating ribs since they are not connected to the sternum.  In between each of the ribs, there are a number of muscles, nerves and arteries.  The rib cage is designed in such a manner as to allow it to expand and contract with the inflation and deflation of the lungs.


Reasons for painful ribs


Rib pain is most often attributed to either joint pain, injury, pain from nerves or pain from the organs themselves.  It may develop slowly over time or it could suddenly begin.  The pain could be a stabbing one or more of a burning sensation.  In some cases, the pain could start in the back and make its way around to the front of the chest.


  • Joint pain is often the result of a posture issue.  Using a computer, as so many people do nowadays, finds many individuals hunched over a desk and keyboard.  Also, those who take on an activity like painting walls or ceilings in the house will frequently feel the strain that these tasks cause on the shoulders and shoulder blades.  In addition, suffering from a bad cold or asthma attack that makes the person cough extensively or even sneeze repeatedly are subject to painful joints in the ribs.  When any of these or other similar situations occurs, undue stress is placed on the ribs, creating swelling in the joints that result in pain.  To diagnose joint pain, doctors will often check for tightness of muscles.  There are also several diseases that lend to joint pain, such as osteoporosis, rheumatoid arthritis and osteoarthritis.
  • Injuries account for the majority of complaints of rib pain.  Those who have had an automobile accident or an incident in which they have fallen could very well have suffered a dislocation, fracture, strain or sprain that is causing the pain.  Contact sports such as football, hockey or other similar activity quite frequently see injuries that involve some type of impact to the chest.  These types of injuries should be examined by a physician to ensure that no long lasting damage has been done.  They will result in generalized pain, sharp pains when taking a deep breath or bending over and difficulty in movement. X-rays or an MRI can diagnose the problem, although the individual generally knows that a trauma has occurred and how it happened. In some cases, the chest may be wrapped to stabilize and limit the movement, as well as a pain reliever prescribed to lessen the discomfort.


  • The rib cage has a network of muscles, ligaments and tendons weaving in and around the ribs and when damage occurs to any of these for any reason, there will be pain.  There is often tenderness of the area to the touch as well as difficulty in drawing sufficient breath.


  • Organ pain can be from the heart, the muscles around the heart or the lungs.  Heart disease or angina can begin as a dull pain in the chest area, which can be misinterpreted as rib pain.  The lungs are also subject to diseases such as pneumonia, a viral infection of the lungs that results in pain.  Pleurisy, an inflammation of the membrane between the lungs and the rib cage, is also known to cause discomfort while breathing and around the general rib cage area.


There are also a number of illnesses and diseases that may include chest or rib pain in their symptoms.  Tuberculosis, lymphoma, myeloma and whooping cough are all examples of this.  Mesothelioma is a disease that is contracted through long exposure to asbestos and result in lung disease with extreme pain to the rib and chest area.


Perhaps a lesser known yet frequently experienced cause for this discomfort is anxiety or panic attacks.  These conditions mimic heart or rib problems with a tight feeling around the chest as well as pain from irregular breathing.  In fact, episodes of anxiety are often precursors to heart disease.


It is evident from this information that there can be numerous causes for experiencing rib pain.  As an individual suffering from the discomfort, a self check can often provide an explanation for the uncomfortable sensation; has there been a recent injury to the chest?  Has a cold or allergies caused hacking coughs or incessant sneezing?  A doctor should always be consulted for pains in the chest, even if simply to reassure that there is no serious condition.