What Does It Mean When Your Ribs Hurt?

Rib pain means you are feeling discomfort and pain in your side or along your rib cage. This can happen to any population or age group, and some will describe it as a stabbing, aching, tender, tearing or gnawing pain. It can be a symptom of a variety of different conditions, disorders or diseases. If it continues and you can’t find an answer, you need to speak with your doctor.

What Does It Mean When Your Ribs Hurt?

The reasons can be a range of conditions from mild to very serious diseases such as myocardial infarction or heart attack, infection, inflammation, malignancy and other abnormal problems. There are also injuries such as broken ribs, or pulled tendons and muscles that may be the cause of your rib pain. Sometimes, chest pain that may come from heart, stomach, or lung problems, makes it difficult to pinpoint from rib pain.

1. Musculoskeletal Problems

Chest injuries such as problems with ligament, nerve or bone injuries can cause your ribs to hurt. Some of these can be:

  • Rib or chest injury such as a bruised chest or broken rib
  • Cartilage between breastbone and ribs inflamed or costochondritis
  • Fibromyalgia which is chronic and causes tenderness, stiffness, and pain
  • Rib infection
  • Inflammation of a nerve or group of them called neuritis
  • Strained or pulled muscle in the back, shoulders, chest wall or arm
  • Weakening and thinning of bones such as osteoporosis
  • Rheumatoid arthritis or osteoarthritis which is an autoimmune disease that is chronic and presents with joint pain and inflammation
  • Multiple sclerosis which affects the spinal cord and brain, causing balance and coordination problems as well as other weaknesses
  • Kyphosis, scoliosis and other spinal alignment disorders

2. Serious Lung-Related Causes

There are serious respiratory system problems that may be at the root of your worry over "What does it mean when your ribs hurt?" These can include:

  • Bronchitis
  • Asthma
  • COPD such as chronic bronchitis or emphysema
  • Pleural effusion where there is a fluid buildup in the lining of the lungs
  • Pneumonia
  • Inflammation of the lung lining, such as pleurisy
  • Fluid buildup in lungs such as pulmonary edema
  • High blood pressure in the lung arteries, also called pulmonary hypertension
  • A blood clot that travels to lungs
  • Blood around lungs or lung collapse
  • Tuberculosis and other serious lung and organ infections

3. Serious Cardiovascular Causes

When there is general chest pain along with rib pain, it can be from heart trouble. These conditions can include:

  • Aortic dissection
  • Congenital cardiac disorders, birth defects, anomalies such as aortic valve stenosis
  • Myocardial infarction or heart attack
  • Congestive heart failure
  • Heart disease or coronary artery disease such as angina or coronary artery spasm from atherosclerosis which is the narrowing and hardening of arteries

4. Digestive System-Related Causes

If you are suffering gastrointestinal problems, you may experience the concern of "What does it mean when your ribs hurt?" These may include:

  • Gastritis
  • Pancreatitis and pancreas conditions
  • Hiatal hernia or abnormal stomach movement into the chest area
  • GERD which is gastroesophageal reflux disease or chronic heartburn
  • Esophageal spasm
  • Cholecystitis or gallbladder inflammation, gallstones and other gallbladder conditions
  • Peptic ulcer

5. Malignant Causes of Rib Pain

You could be dealing with a form of cancer, such as:

  • Lung cancer
  • Boone cancer
  • Bone marrow cancer such as multiple myeloma

When Is It Time for an Emergency Call?

Your rib pain sometimes may have a life-threatening root cause and with this, you should seek emergency treatment and call 911 immediately. Seek emergency help in case your pain comes after a rib trauma or you experience the following symptoms:

  • Coughing or chest pain when breathing
  • Chest pain that spreads to back, shoulder, jaw or left arm
  • Tearing sensations, tightness, cramping or chest pressure
  • Lips, nails, or skin that is bluish in color, cold and clammy
  • Fever of 101 degrees Fahrenheit or higher
  • Mucus or yellow-green phlegm being coughed up
  • Dizziness, confusion or change in alertness or consciousness; passing out
  • Heart fluttering, palpitations or discomfort in the chest
  • Severe stomach pain
  • Noisy or rough sound when breathing
  • Breathing trouble such as shortness of breath or labored breathing

How to Cope with Rib Pain

What does it mean when your ribs hurt? You already know the answer. But what about the treatment?

  • If your rib pain is from a bruise, pulled muscle or other minor injury, a cold compress and over-the-counter meds to reduce inflammation may be helpful. If you have no relief, you may need to seek your doctor’s help for another suggestion. They may offer compression wraps or further medication. Compression wraps will go around your chest, holding it tightly to keep from more injuries. These are only needed in rare cases because they may make it hard to breathe, putting you at further risk for pneumonia.
  • Ice applications or heat applications may be used with typical costochondritis. Some medicines may also be recommended such as ibuprofen or naproxen. These should be taken with food and avoided if you have stomach trouble, kidney disease or bleeding disorders.
  • If the problems are gastrointestinal, lung, heart or respiratory infection-related, there will be treatments and specific medications provided.
  • If you are dealing with bone cancer, your doctor will discuss your available options, helping to keep it from spreading or to remove growths that are present.
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