Rib Pain on Left or Right Side: The Most Likely Causes of Rib Cage Pain

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Rib Pain on Left or Right Side: The Most Likely Causes of Rib Cage Pain
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Rib cage pain on the left side or right side of your chest is a common symptom experienced by many people. The most common cause of sharp or dull pains in your rib cage is a pulled muscle or fractured rib. Injuries to your rib cage or muscles in your upper chest can cause rib pain ranging from a dull ache to sudden, sharp jabbing pains in the affected area. This can result in aching chest discomfort and rib cage tenderness until the injury heals. In some cases the pain can wrap around the ribs causing rib pain in the back.

Even though most cases of rib cage pain are nothing to worry about, you should never ignore any kind of unexplained chest pain. Even if the nagging aches and pains in your chest are just the result of inflammation in your rib joints, it is always best to see a doctor to be on the safe side.

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Some causes of pain that are felt under your rib cage can be an indication of a serious condition. For example, a broken or fractured rib could damage any of the organs in your rib cage. This can result in a collapsed lung, enlarged spleen, or damage to your liver or kidneys which will cause anything from mild aches to sharp stabbing pains under your ribs. Also, some causes of pressing or squeezing rib cage pain could be a sign of an impending heart attack.

In this article, I will look at the various reasons why you might experience rib cage pain. I will also look at some other common causes of pain that are felt under your right or left rib cage. In some cases, there are effective home remedies that can help to alleviate the pain.

What are the Symptoms of Rib Pain?

Rib cage pain can occur anywhere below your ribs, in your upper or lower chest, or above your belly button. Sometimes, the dull to sharp pains may radiate to other parts of your body like your shoulder blade, left arm, or back. Very often you will just feel pain on one side of your rib cage.

According to Dr. Jennifer Robinson on WebMD, some symptoms of rib cage pain include:1

  • Pain on the left side of your chest due to inflammation
  • Sharp aching pains in the center of your chest
  • Squeezing pressure in the center of your rib cage because of cardiac-related issues
  • Sharp stabbing rib pains when you breathe deeply or lie down
  • Burning sensation in the center of your chest especially after eating
  • Feeling of fullness under your rib cage
  • Tenderness around your sternum (breastbone)
  • Sudden severe pains under your ribs

Depending on the cause of your rib pain, you may also experience nausea, dizziness, cramping abdominal pains, shortness of breath, or a fever.

Left Vs. Right Rib Cage Pain

Because rib cage pain can occur anywhere under your ribs, it can sometimes be difficult to identify exactly which side of your chest the pain originates from. However, depending on the reason for the aching sensation in your rib cage, pain may be felt on just the left side or the right rib cage.

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Pain in the left side under ribs

A pain in the left side of the body under your ribs may cause you panic because of the possibility that it is heart-related pain. While it is true that left sided rib cage pain could be a sign of angina or another serious cardiac issue, there are other reasons for such pain.

Your heart is located under your ribs, slightly to the left of your middle chest. If heart-related issues cause chest pain, this will feel like tight squeezing, pressure, or chest tightness under the left rib cage. Usually, the pain will spread to your left arm, jaw, and neck.

However, your left lung, spleen, and left kidney are also protected by the left rib cage. Any condition affecting these organs will result in mild to severe aches and pains under your left ribs.

Of course, blunt trauma to your left ribs or pulling a muscle will result in localized pain in the left side. You might also notice that your ribs are tender or sore to touch.

Pain in the right side under ribs

The main reasons for painful aches or sharp jabbing pains in your right rib cage are some kind of chest injury such as pulled muscle or rib injury. Damaging any of your right-hand ribs will feel sore when you press on the injured rib. Sometimes the injury can cause inflammation in your ribs and breastbone which may cause the rib pain to worsen.

Your liver, right lung, right kidney, and gallbladder are all located under your right rib cage. Disease, inflammation, or damage to any of these organs can cause pain in your right side under the chest wall that may feel like rib cage pain.

High Risk Causes of Rib Cage Pain or Pain Under Ribs

Let’s look in more detail at some of the serious causes of pain in the rib cage. Most of the following causes of rib pain require examination by a doctor to diagnose the extent and severity of the condition.

Heart attack

An impending heart attack will usually cause crushing pains below your upper left ribs and may spread to your left arm. The symptoms of a heart attack can come on gradually over a few days or weeks or they can cause sudden chest pains.

Many people say that a heart attack feels like intense pressure in the middle or left side of the chest. The tight, squeezing chest pains may come and go and last for a few minutes at a time. However, doctors from the National Health Service say that heart attacks in women may only cause mild or even no chest pain.

The other symptoms of a heart attack that affect both men and women include:

  • Jaw pain, headaches, and shoulder pain
  • Shortness of breath or gasping for air
  • Nausea and/or vomiting
  • Symptoms of heartburn like a burning sensation under the ribs
  • Upper back pain

It’s important to get prompt medical care if you suspect your chest pain is heart-related. Prompt medical help may be a matter of life and death.

You can greatly reduce your risk of a heart attack by making simple lifestyle changes.

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Pleurisy

Pleurisy is inflammation of the lining of your lungs and can result in stabbing pains under your left or right rib cage. Pleurisy is often the result of infections to the lungs, pulmonary embolism, or sometimes cancer. The pain under ribs happens when the nerve fibers in the pleura get irritated and sore.

Dr. George Schiffman on MedicineNet says that, apart from causing sharp, stabbing intense pains under your ribs, pleurisy can also cause the following symptoms:4

  • Severe rib cage pain made worse by breathing in or coughing
  • Tenderness on the side of the rib cage where the inflammation occurs
  • Back or shoulder blade pain

Although pleurisy doesn’t usually result in any serious complication, the intense chest pain that it causes can affect your daily activities. Doctors usually treat the underlying cause of pleurisy to get rid of the pain.

Collapsed lung

A collapsed lung is a potentially serious condition that will cause sharp jabbing pains on one side of your chest. A collapsed lung (or, pneumothorax) happens when air enters the cavity between your lung and the wall of the chest. The pressure causes the lung to collapse resulting in sudden pain under the rib cage.

According to doctors from the Cleveland Clinic, a collapsed lung can be caused by infection, asthma, injury to the rib cage, or lung disease. This usually just affects one lung and the stabbing chest pains will be felt on that side of the ribs.5

Apart from rib pain, a collapsed lung can also cause some of the following symptoms:

  • Difficulty breathing or shallow breathing
  • Rapid breathing
  • Racing heartbeat
  • A constant cough
  • Blue-colored skin

Pulmonary embolism

A pulmonary embolism happens when a blood clot gets into an artery in your lungs and causes an onset of sudden sharp pain under your ribs. Blood clots in your lungs can be potentially fatal as they can lead to deprivation of oxygen to the body.

According to expert in pulmonary care Dr. Daniel Ouellette, the symptoms of pulmonary embolism can develop gradually or come on suddenly. Sometimes, shortness of breath and respiratory problems gradually progress. However, the blood clot can cause sudden chest pain with abdominal pain, difficulty breathing, wheezing, flank pain, and frequent coughing.6

If you notice any of these symptoms then you should call for emergency medical help immediately.

Pulmonary hypertension

One reason for sharp right-sided rib cage pain  is a type of high blood pressure called pulmonary hypertension. Doctors from the American Heart Association say that this type of high blood pressure is caused when the heart works hard to pump blood to your lungs.

One of the symptoms of pulmonary hypertension is right sided pain in your upper abdomen just below your right ribs. You may also have the following symptoms:7

  • Shortness of breath when going about your daily activities
  • Rapid heartbeat
  • Decreased appetite
  • Swelling of your ankles

Keeping your cardiovascular system healthy by regular exercising, enjoying a well-balanced diet, and maintaining a healthy weight can help to prevent pulmonary hypertension.

Lung cancer

On rare occasions, rib cage pain could be a sign of lung cancer. However, it’s important to note that rib pain itself isn’t a sign of lung cancer. According to Cancer Research UK, some possible symptoms of lung cancer are:8

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  • Coughing up colored mucus or blood
  • Chest or shoulder pain
  • Unexplained weight loss
  • Fatigue
  • Recurring chest infections

Low Risk Causes of Pain Under the Ribs

Thankfully, the majority of causes of left rib cage pain or aches in your right rib cage are not as serious as a heart attack, broken rib, or serious lung condition. Let’s look at some of the less-serious causes of rib cage pain.

Pulled chest muscles, rib fracture, or broken rib

One of the most common causes of rib pain is an injury to your rib cage. This could be something as simple as a pulled muscle or as serious as a rib fracture or broken rib. Of course, pulled chest muscles are usually nothing to worry about, however, a fractured or broken rib may need to be examined by a medical professional.

Pulled chest muscles. Your chest contains muscle groups referred to as your “pecs” which support your rib cage and upper body. Overstretching your arms, sudden jerking movements, or overuse injuries can pull, strain, or tear chest muscles. Dr. William Shiel on eMedicineHealth says that some symptoms of pulled muscles in your chest include:2

  • Pain in your rib cage when you are resting
  • Swelling, bruising, or redness around the affected area
  • Muscle spasms or cramping in your upper chest
  • Weakness in your arms

Pulled or injured intercostal muscles. The Intercostal muscles are found between each of your ribs and provide support to your upper body and assist in breathing. Sudden jerking movements or overstretching can strain the intercostal muscles resulting in mild to severe pain in ribs. The pain can wrap around the ribs and spread to your back causing rib pain in the back.

Fractured or broken rib. A more serious injury to your chest that can cause rib pain on the left side or right side is suffering a broken, fractured or bruised rib. Your chest contains your ribs, sternum, and xiphoid process.

Doctors from the Mayo Clinic say that a broken rib has the potential to damage blood vessels or internal organs under the rib cage. Cracked ribs aren’t as serious, however, they will cause sharp pains on the affected side of your rib cage.

Other symptoms of a cracked or broken rib include:

  • Intense rib cage pain when breathing deeply
  • Tenderness or excruciating pain when pressing on the injured rib
  • General pain in your rib cage that is dull to severe when you twist your upper body

Rib cage injuries require plenty of rest to heal. If doctors suspect a fractured or broken rib, they may send you for an X-ray or MRI scan. Very often a warm compress on the affected side of your sore rib cage can help to speed up the healing process and relieve your rib cage pain.

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Costochondritis

Costochondritis is an inflammation of the cartilage attaching a rib to the breastbone (sternum). The inflammation in the middle of your rib cage can cause you to feel tenderness and pain in the ribs when you move. The pain may radiate to your back or abdomen and is usually more common on your left side.

The area where your upper ribs join your sternum (breastbone) is called the sternocostal joints. Bacterial or viral infections can cause costochondritis resulting in mild to severe rib cage pain.

According to Dr. Melissa Conrad Stöppler on eMedicineHealth, repeated minor trauma to the rib cage, upper respiratory infections, or arthritis can cause aching pains in the chest. Some other symptoms of costochondritis include:3

Because costochondritis can feel like cardiac pain, you should see a doctor for any sharp, squeezing pains in the middle or left side of your rib cage.

Fibromyalgia

Fibromyalgia is a chronic painful condition that causes widespread pain in the body including rib pain. Although fibromyalgia rarely puts an individual’s life at risk, it can cause constant distress and fatigue because of pain.

According to Dr. Carol DerSarkissian on WebMD, fibromyalgia commonly causes gnawing or stabbing pain that affects the rib cage, chest, shoulders, and lower back. Sometimes the pain in the ribs can come on suddenly or sometimes the aches develop gradually.9

For more information on how to live with chronic pain, please see my article on the best essential oils for pain and inflammation.

Indigestion

Indigestion may not affect your rib cage, but it can cause aches and discomfort under your ribs. Dr. John Cunha on eMedicineHealth says that indigestion can cause a burning sensation under your ribs (heartburn), abdominal pain, excessive gas and bloating, and nausea after eating. In many cases the symptoms of heartburn (acid reflux) can feel like a heart attack. However, you can usually relieve heartburn pain by drinking baking soda water.

Some ways to reduce indigestion include eating smaller meals more frequently, reducing alcohol intake, coping with stress better, and avoiding caffeine.

Trapped gas

A buildup of gas in your digestive system can cause a mild to severe upper abdominal pain under ribs as well as abdominal cramping and discomfort.

According to Dr. Matthew Hoffman on WebMD, trapped gas can cause chest pain. In addition to the rib pain you might also have abdominal bloating. Usually, you can differentiate gas pain from heart-related pain because the chest pain should go away in a short time when you pass gas.

Panic attack

A panic attack is another reason for feeling tight squeezing rib cage pain. Panic disorder or anxiety attacks can bring on symptoms similar to a heart attack.

According to the Journal of Clinical Psychiatry, chest pain often accompanies panic attacks. The chest aches and pain can come on gradually as the tension in the rib muscles increases or it can cause sudden stabbing pains under the ribs. The pain under the ribs could be due to increased blood pressure and heart rate or tense muscles and ligaments.10

For some natural ways of dealing with anxiety, please read my article on the best essential oils for anxiety disorder.

Gallstones

A blockage in your gallbladder or gallstones can be a reason for right-sided pain under your ribs. Your gallbladder is connected to your digestive system and helps the liver digest fatty foods. A buildup of cholesterol can cause small stone-like substances in the gallbladder and cause pain.

Doctors from the WebMD says that gallbladder pain is usually felt under the right ribs or in the center of the upper abdomen. The pain can be mild aches to severe jabbing pains that can last for up to 5 hours.11

A related condition to gallbladder stones is pancreatitis which will also cause severe pain below your right ribs.

When to See a Doctor About Rib Cage Pain

There can be many reasons for pain under your rib cage. Because there is a risk that rib cage pain could be related to a serious condition, you should never ignore new chest pain or constant pains under your ribs.

Dr. Jennifer Robinson on WebMD says that you should see a doctor for rib cage pain in the following circumstances:

  • Sensation of sudden tightness, squeezing pain, or pressure in the middle of your chest
  • Sharp stabbing rib cage pain that causes shortness of breath
  • Rapid heartbeat or rapid breathing with nausea and excessive sweating
  • Pain under your ribs along with coughing up discolored phlegm or mucus
  • Severe rib cage pain that doesn’t go away

Related articles

Medical Sources

  1. WebMD. What’s causing my chest pain?
  2. eMedicineHealth. Muscle strain.
  3. eMedicineHealth. Costochondritis.
  4. MedicineNet. Pleurisy.
  5. ClevelandClinic. Lung: Collapsed lung
  6. Medscape. Pulmonary embolism.
  7. HeartOrg. Pulmonary hypertension.
  8. CancerResearchUK. Lung cancer – symptoms.
  9. WebMD. Understanding fibromyalgia – the basics.
  10. Prim Care Companion J Clin Psychiatry. 2008; 10(5): 376–383.
  11. WebMD. Gallbladder pain.
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