Rib cage pain is a common complaint that can have many causes, 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.

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:

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. Infection

Infections, including upper respiratory infection, bronchitis, or pneumonia, can cause pain in the ribs.

The pain may be caused by the infection itself, a pulled rib muscle from coughing, or by pleurisy. Pleurisy occurs when the pleura, tissue between the lungs and the rib cage, becomes inflamed.

Other causes of pleurisy include autoimmune disorders and certain medications.

4. Lung 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 that causes pain throughout the body. Fibromyalgia is estimated by the American College of Rheumatology to affect between 2-4 percent of people and is more common in 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:

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.

According to the American Lung Association, 10-30% of people who develop PE will die within 1 month of diagnosis. 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 navel. 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.

Below are some commonly asked questions about rib cage pain.

Why is the right side of my rib cage hurting?

There are many potential reasons why the right side of a person’s rib cage is hurting. Typically, this is due to an injury to the chest area. Other causes include costochondritis and fibromyalgia. Rib pain on the right side could also point to other more serious causes, such as cancer or a pulmonary embolism.

What organ is under the rib cage on the right side?

The pancreas, right kidney, gallbladder, liver, and intestines are organs found under the lower ribs on the right side.

How do I know if my right side pain is serious?

According to the NHS, a rib injury that is accompanied by shortness of breath, tightness in the chest, or coughing up blood or green mucus may point to something serious. People with these symptoms should seek medical attention.

What does rib pain from lung cancer feel like?

Lung cancer can cause pain in the chest, including the ribs. A person may experience pain that gets worse when they breathe deeply, laugh, or cough.

Where does lung cancer usually hurt?

Lung cancer pain usually develops as an ache or pain in the chest or shoulder.

What is the biggest symptom of lung cancer?

The most common symptoms of lung cancer can include a cough that does not go away or gets worse, coughing up blood, and chest pain.

What does stage 1 lung cancer feel like?

Most early stages of lung cancer do not cause any symptoms. However, a person may experience symptoms such as a cough that worsens or does not resolve.

What causes rib pain without injury?

Some causes of rib pain that is not a result of injury include costochondritis, infection, lung cancer, fibromyalgia, and pulmonary embolism.

When should a person be concerned about rib pain?

There are many potential causes of rib pain. A person should contact a doctor if the pain worsens or does not resolve.

A person should contact the emergency services if the rib pain is severe and accompanies other symptoms, such as shortness of breath.

What does it mean when the whole rib cage hurts?

Some causes of pain that affect the entire rib cage include injury, infection, or costochondritis.

What can mimic rib pain?

A person may mistake other conditions for rib pain. For example, a condition affecting the heart or lungs may cause referred pain in the ribs. However, there could also be less severe causes, such as indigestion.

To get an accurate diagnosis, a person should contact a doctor if they experience rib pain.

There are several possible causes of rib cage pain, many of which are not linked to serious conditions and resolve on their own.

However, other cases may require medical treatment and long-term care.

The cause of the rib pain may be a disease or condition not included in the list above. It helps to be vigilant for other symptoms that accompany the rib cage pain and to report these to a doctor.