What causes rib pain?

Rib pain can be caused by a variety of mild to serious disorders, diseases or conditions that can result from infection, myocardial infarction (heart attack), inflammation, trauma, malignancy, and other abnormal processes. Rib pain is often due to injury such as strained or broken ribs or pulled muscles and tendons. Diseases and conditions of organs and tissues in your chest, such as the lungs, heart and stomach, can result in chest pain that may be difficult to distinguish from rib pain caused by conditions of the ribs.

Musculoskeletal causes of rib pain

Common causes of rib pain include rib and chest injuries as well as bone, nerve and ligament conditions including:

  • Chest or rib injury, such as a broken rib or a bruised chest

  • Costochondritis (inflammation of the cartilage between the ribs and breastbone)

  • Fibromyalgia (chronic condition that causes pain, stiffness and tenderness)

  • Multiple sclerosis (disease that affects the brain and spinal cord causing weakness, coordination, balance difficulties, and other problems)

  • Neuritis (inflammation of a nerve or group of nerves)

  • Osteoarthritis and rheumatoid arthritis (chronic autoimmune disease characterized by joint inflammation)

  • Osteoporosis (thinning and weakening of the bones)

  • Pulled or strained muscle in the chest wall, shoulders, back or arm

  • Rib infection

  • Spinal alignment disorders including scoliosis and kyphosis

Serious or life-threatening lung-related causes of rib pain

Rib pain or pain in the general chest area can be caused by serious problems with the respiratory system including:

  • Asthma

  • Bronchitis

  • Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD, includes emphysema and chronic bronchitis)

  • Flail chest (multiple broken ribs causing part of the chest wall to move independently with breathing)

  • Pleural effusion (fluid buildup in the lining that surrounds the lungs)

  • Pleurisy (inflammation of the lung lining)

  • Pneumonia

  • Pneumothorax or hemothorax (collapsed lung or blood around the lung)

  • Pulmonary edema (fluid buildup in the lungs)

  • Pulmonary embolism (a blood clot that travels to the lungs)

  • Pulmonary hypertension (high blood pressure in the arteries of the lungs)

  • Tuberculosis (serious infection affecting the lungs and other organs)

Life-threatening cardiovascular causes of rib pain

Rib pain or pain in the general chest area can arise from problems with the structures surrounding the heart and the heart itself including:

  • Aortic dissection

  • Congenital cardiac anomalies, disorders, and birth defects, such as coarctation of the aorta and aortic valve stenosis

  • Congestive heart failure

  • Coronary artery disease (heart disease) including coronary artery spasm or angina due to atherosclerosis (hardening and narrowing of the arteries)

  • Heart attack (myocardial infarction)

Malignant causes of rib pain

Rib pain can be caused by certain types of cancer including:

  • Bone cancer

  • Lung cancer

  • Multiple myeloma (bone marrow cancer)

Digestive system–related causes of rib pain

Rib pain, or pain in the general chest area, can arise from gastrointestinal problems including:

  • Esophageal spasm

  • Gallbladder conditions, such as cholecystitis (inflammation of the gallbladder) and gallstones

  • Gastritis

  • Gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD) or heartburn

  • Hiatal hernia (abnormal movement of the stomach into the chest)

  • Pancreatitis and other pancreas conditions

  • Peptic ulcer

What are the potential complications of rib pain?

The complications of untreated or poorly controlled rib pain vary depending on the underlying disease, disorder or condition. Any kind of persistent rib pain, whether it occurs alone or is accompanied by other symptoms, should be evaluated by your doctor or health care provider. Once the underlying cause is identified, following the treatment plan you and your health care provider develop specifically for you will minimize the risk of complications of serious or life-threatening underlying causes of rib pain including:

  • Cardiac arrest

  • Cardiac arrhythmias (abnormal heart rhythms)

  • High carbon dioxide levels and acidosis

  • Injury to organs and structures in your chest including your arteries, lungs, kidneys, liver and spleen

  • Low oxygen levels

  • Pneumonia

  • Respiratory failure and respiratory arrest

  • Sepsis

  • Shock


  1. Costochondritis. Medline Plus, a service of the National Library of Medicine National Institutes of Health. http://www.nlm.nih.gov/medlineplus/ency/article/000164.htm.
  2. Chest pain. Medline Plus, a service of the National Library of Medicine National Institutes of Health. http://www.nlm.nih.gov/medlineplus/ency/article/003079.htm
  3. Pleurisy. PubMed Health, a service of the NLM from the NIH. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmedhealth/PMH0002347/
  4. Rib cage pain. Medline Plus, a service of the National Library of Medicine National Institutes of Health. http://www.nlm.nih.gov/medlineplus/ency/article/003109.htm.

What is rib pain?

Rib pain includes any type of pain or discomfort that occurs in the ribs. Ribs are long, slender bones that curve around the chest to create the rib cage. The top 10 ribs on both sides of the body attach to the thoracic (mid-back) spine and breastbone (sternum) by joints and ligaments. The bottom two ribs attach by ligaments to the spine, but not to the breastbone, and are sometimes called the ... Read more about rib painintroduction


What other symptoms might occur with rib pain?

Rib pain can occur in conjunction with other symptoms, which vary depending on the underlying disease, disorder or condition.For example, if rib pain is related to an infection, such as pneumonia, you may experience a fever and body aches. Pain can also travel from the shoulders, arms and back to your ribs.
<... Read more about rib painsymptoms

Medical Reviewer: Cynthia Haines, MD Last Annual Review Date: Aug 8, 2013 Copyright: © Copyright 2014 Health Grades, Inc. All rights reserved. May not be reproduced or reprinted without permission from Health Grades, Inc. Use of this information is governed by the HealthGrades User Agreement.

This Article is Filed Under: Bones, Joints and Muscles

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