Rib cage pain is a common complaint that can result from many factors, ranging from a fractured rib to lung cancer. The pain may be sudden and sharp or dull and aching.

Many cases of rib cage pain are not linked to serious conditions and resolve on their own or with minimal treatment. Others, however, are medical emergencies requiring immediate intervention.

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There are many possible causes of rib cage pain. A doctor will diagnose the underlying cause by a physical examination and imaging scans.

Common reasons for rib cage pain include:

1. Injury

Injury to the chest from falls, traffic collisions, and sports-related contact is the most common cause of rib cage pain. Types of injury include:

  • broken ribs
  • bruised ribs
  • fractured ribs
  • pulled muscle

Rib cage pain that begins following injury is typically diagnosed with an X-ray to highlight bone breaks and fractures. MRIs and other scans can detect soft tissue damage.

2. Costochondritis

Costochondritis or Tietze’s syndrome is another common cause of rib cage pain.

This condition is characterized by inflammation of the cartilage in the rib cage. It usually occurs in the cartilage that joins the upper ribs to the sternum, an area called the costosternal joint.

Rib cage pain 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 down the limbs, or pain that interferes with daily life.

Some cases of costochondritis resolve without treatment, while others require medical intervention.

3. Pleurisy

Pleurisy, also known as pleuritis, 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 the lungs. In their healthy state, they smoothly slide across one another. However, inflammation causes them to rub, leading to significant pain.

Since the advent of antibiotics, pleurisy is much less common than it was. Even when it does occur, it is often a mild condition that resolves on its own. Pleurisy usually lasts from a few days to 2 weeks.

Other inflammatory conditions of the lungs, such as bronchitis, may also cause pain around the rib cage.

4. Cancer

Lung cancer is the second most common cancer in the United States.

One of the symptoms of lung cancer is rib cage pain or chest pain that gets worse upon breathing deeply, coughing, or laughing. Other symptoms to look out for include coughing up blood or phlegm, shortness of breath, and wheezing.

The outlook for lung cancer is poorer than other forms of cancer and is the leading cause of cancer death among 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.

5. Fibromyalgia

This is a chronic condition, causing pain throughout the body. Fibromyalgia is estimated by the American College of Rheumatology to affect between 2-4 percent of people, up to 90 percent of whom are women.

The pain associated with fibromyalgia may be burning, throbbing, stabbing, or aching. These pains are commonly felt in the rib cage, although any part of the body can be affected.

Some research suggests that non-specific chest pain, including rib cage pain, is the most common co-existing condition that leads to hospital admission in people with fibromyalgia.

6. Pulmonary embolism

A pulmonary embolism (PE) is when an artery going into the lungs becomes blocked. The blockage is often caused by a blood clot that has traveled up from one of the legs.

As well as rib cage pain, PE can cause the following symptoms:

  • shortness of breath
  • rapid breathing
  • coughing, including coughing up blood
  • anxiety
  • lightheadedness
  • sweating
  • irregular heartbeat

PE is a serious condition that can damage the lungs and other organs due to reduced oxygen in the blood. Anyone who experiences the symptoms of PE should see a doctor.

The National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute estimate that 30 percent of people who develop PE will die if they do not receive treatment. Fortunately, a quick diagnosis and treatment can prevent complications.

The rib cage consists of 24 ribs, 12 on either side, and it shields the organs of the chest, including the heart and the lungs, from damage.

The ribs are attached to the breastbone, which is the long bone that runs down the center of the chest. They are attached at the front, by cartilage, which is a firm yet flexible tissue. At the back, they are attached to the spine.

The liver is located at the lower end of the rib cage on the right and the spleen is on the left. Both are given some protection by the rib bones. The gallbladder and kidneys lie just below the rib cage.

If any of the components of the rib cage, including the bones or cartilage, or the organs nearby are affected by injury or illness, a person will have pain in or near the rib cage.

Rib cage pain may occur in the chest, below the ribs, or above the naval. As there are several different causes of rib cage pain, the symptoms can vary. As a result, the pain may be:

  • sharp
  • dull
  • aching
  • sudden
  • slow to develop
  • constant
  • intermittent
  • worse when breathing in or moving

Other symptoms affecting the rib cage can include:

  • bruising
  • tenderness
  • difficulty breathing

Rib cage pain can be attributed to many underlying injuries or medical conditions. A person should always consult a doctor in any case of unexplained rib cage pain.

If the pain or pressure in the chest is severe and breathing becomes difficult, a person should seek emergency medical treatment, as these symptoms could indicate a heart attack.