What Pain in or Under Your Rib Cage Could Mean

Medically Reviewed By Darragh O'Carroll, MD

Rib cage pain can be due to conditions or injuries affecting the rib cage, such as a fractured rib or a strained muscle. The pain you can feel under the rib cage may also be from one of the internal organs that the rib cage protects. Pain under the rib cage may occur suddenly, such as after an injury. Rib cage pain that develops over time may show an underlying acute or chronic medical condition.

Read on to learn more about potential causes of rib cage pain.

Either or both sides of the rib cage

A healthcare professional pushing under a person's rib cage
Photography by Dobrila Vignjevic/Getty Images

Several conditions can lead to pain on either or both sides of your rib cage.

Costochondritis

Costochondritis refers to inflammation of the cartilage that attaches the ribs to your breastbone. The cause may be an injury, an infection, or severe coughing. The pain may be acute and sharp, and taking a deep breath can worsen Trusted Source PubMed Central Highly respected database from the National Institutes of Health Go to source the pain.

Taking nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs like ibuprofen (Advil) or naproxen (Aleve) may help relieve the pain. Contact a doctor if your symptoms persist or worsen.

Muscle sprains or strains

Sprains and strains of the intercostal muscles, which sit between the ribs and expand your chest cavity Trusted Source PubMed Central Highly respected database from the National Institutes of Health Go to source when you breathe, can cause sharp or dull rib cage pain. There may also be a noticeable stretching and tearing injury.

Sometimes, the injury isn’t noticeable, only the pain. The pain may worsen when you cough or take a deep breath. Pressing over the injured area or twisting your body may also be painful.

Resting the muscle, icing the area, and taking over-the-counter (OTC) pain relievers may help.

Intercostal neuralgia

Pain that arises from the intercostal nerves, which run around and between the ribs, is known as intercostal neuralgia. The condition can cause Trusted Source PubMed Central Highly respected database from the National Institutes of Health Go to source intense burning or sharp pain around the ribs and chest and may occur from:

  • injuries from surgical procedures
  • compression of the nerves
  • atypical collections of nerve cells
  • infections

To manage intercostal neuralgia, your doctor may recommend medication injections or procedures that use heat or cold to reduce nerve pain.

Pleural conditions

Some conditions that affect the pleura, the tissue that lines the inside of the chest cavity and the outside of the lungs, may cause pain around the chest and under the ribs. Pleural conditions can include:

  • Pleurisy: This occurs when the pleura becomes inflamed. The pain may worsen when taking a deep breath.
  • Pleural effusion: This occurs when fluid builds up between the pleural linings.
  • Pneumothorax: This occurs when air builds up in the pleural cavity, which may cause the lung to collapse.

Pleural conditions may be manageable with medications, procedures to drain fluid or air, and oxygen therapy.

Shingles

Shingles is a viral infection that may cause acute, sharp, and stabbing nerve pain. Before the pain starts, you may have a fever, headache, or nausea.

Shingles often causes Trusted Source PubMed Central Highly respected database from the National Institutes of Health Go to source a blister-like rash on one side of the chest or rib cage where the pain develops, but may also affect other body areas.

Medications like acetaminophen (Tylenol) may help relieve the pain, while antiviral medications can treat the infection to help shorten it and reduce its severity.

Learn more about shingles stages and symptoms.

Pulmonary embolism

A pulmonary embolism (PE) occurs when the arteries that carry blood to your lungs become blocked. This condition can cause chest pain Trusted Source PubMed Central Highly respected database from the National Institutes of Health Go to source or pain that feels like it’s under the ribs or in the lungs.

Other symptoms may include rapid breathing, shortness of breath, difficulty breathing, and coughing up blood.

A PE is an emergency that requires immediate medical care. Treatment involves taking medications to dissolve the clot or limit its growth. Sometimes, a procedure to remove the clot is necessary.

Learn 9 things to know about pulmonary embolism.

Other conditions

Gastrointestinal conditions may also cause pain that feels like it’s in or under the rib cage. These include:

Chest pain may also be a symptom of potentially life threatening conditions, such as heart attack. It’s important to promptly report any acute or unexplainable rib cage pain to your doctor.

Left side of your rib cage

Injuries and conditions like pleurisy can occur either on the left or right side of your rib cage. However, specific conditions may cause pain only on the left side, such as conditions related to the pancreas.

For example, pancreatic cancer can cause pain that’s dull and chronic. You may also experience Trusted Source PubMed Central Highly respected database from the National Institutes of Health Go to source nausea, jaundice, and weight loss.

Pancreatic cancer treatment involves destroying the cancer cells and additional therapies to manage pain and other symptoms.

Learn more about what pain on the left side of your abdomen could mean.

Right side of your rib cage

Some conditions may lead to pain only on the right side of your rib cage.

Gallbladder diseases

Gallbladder diseases, including gallstones and inflammatory conditions, may lead Trusted Source PubMed Central Highly respected database from the National Institutes of Health Go to source to pain in the right upper abdomen, the gallbladder’s location. The pain may be sharp and acute and may radiate to the back or under the ribs.

Other symptoms may include clay-colored stools, jaundice, and fever. Surgery may be necessary to manage gallbladder conditions.

Liver disease

Liver disease may also cause Trusted Source PubMed Central Highly respected database from the National Institutes of Health Go to source pain. The pain may be dull and chronic. You may feel it under the right ribs.

Other symptoms may include:

Treatment plans for pain related to liver disease may involve medications or nonpharmacologic methods like physical, heat, or cold therapy.

Learn more about what pain on the right side of your abdomen could mean.

When to see a doctor

Contact your doctor if you have severe, worsening, or chronic rib cage pain, especially if the pain occurs with movement or breathing.

Additionally, get medical attention if you have rib cage pain with:

Summary

Rib cage pain may have various causes, such as an injury to the rib cage or conditions that affect the organs under the ribs. Contact a healthcare professional if you have persistent, severe, or worsening pain.

Was this helpful?
1331

Medical Reviewer: Darragh O'Carroll, MD
Last Review Date: 2023 Dec 1
View All Symptoms and Conditions Articles
THIS TOOL DOES NOT PROVIDE MEDICAL ADVICE. It is intended for informational purposes only. It is not a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. Never ignore professional medical advice in seeking treatment because of something you have read on the site. If you think you may have a medical emergency, immediately call your doctor or dial 911.