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What causes pain around the ribs and back symptoms?

Pain around the ribs and back is a common complaint many healthcare professionals hear, and it can arise from a myriad of sources. This discomfort can range from a mild ache to sharp, debilitating pain, sometimes hindering everyday activities and significantly impacting the quality of life. The complexity of the human body means that this pain could be stemming from issues with various organ systems, each with its unique set of potential conditions and diseases. 

The rib cage is a critical structure that provides protection to vital organs, including the heart, lungs, and liver. Simultaneously, the back has a complex network of muscles, bones, and nerves, each capable of producing pain under certain conditions. Understanding the potential causes behind rib and back pain is a necessary step toward effective diagnosis and treatment.

In the subsequent sections, we will explore the different potential causes of rib and back pain, segmented into categories based on organ systems and disease types. These include musculoskeletal conditions, respiratory conditions, digestive issues, cardiovascular problems, neurological issues, and cancers. However, it's important to remember that this is a broad overview and does not replace the detailed diagnosis a healthcare provider can offer. If you're experiencing such discomfort, seeking professional medical advice is crucial.

Here are some of the potential causes:

Musculoskeletal conditions

This system is normally the most common cause of rib pain. Conditions include:

An inflammation of the cartilage that connects the ribs to the breastbone. It can cause sharp, localized chest and rib pain.
Rib fractures or bruising:
Direct trauma or injury can cause this pain. It could be a result of a fall, car accident, or any other physical trauma.
Muscle strain or sprain:
Overuse or injury to the intercostal muscles (the muscles between the ribs) can cause pain. Sometimes even a cough can provoke a strain in those muscles.
Inflammation of the joints between the ribs and spine or breastbone can cause rib cage pain.

Respiratory conditions

Problems with the lungs can often lead to pain around the ribs. Some common conditions include:

This infection inflames the air sacs in one or both lungs, which may fill with fluid and consequently cause much pain in the area.
This condition is an inflammation of the pleura, a double-layered membrane covering the lungs. It can lead to a sharp, stabbing pain when you breathe and it’s very painful.
Pulmonary embolism:
This life-threatening condition occurs when a blood clot travels to the lungs, interrupting the correct blood circulation. One of its symptoms can be chest pain and it’s a severe medical emergency.

Digestive issues 

Problems in the digestive system can sometimes cause pain that feels as though it's coming from the rib cage, such as:

Hardened deposits in the gallbladder can cause intense pain in the upper-right abdomen, which can radiate to the back or right shoulder.
Gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD):
Chronic acid reflux can sometimes cause pain in the chest area due to the acid that leaves the stomach and goes up.
Inflammation of the pancreas can cause pain in the upper abdomen that radiates to the back.

Cardiovascular issues

Some heart problems can cause pain in the chest and ribs, although this is less common. Conditions can include:

This condition, caused by reduced blood flow to the heart, can result in chest pain.
It’s an inflammation of the sac-like covering around the heart (pericardium), causing sharp, stabbing chest pain.

Neurological issues

Some nerve-related problems can cause rib and back pain. For example:

This infection, caused by the same virus as chickenpox, can lead to a painful rash, often on one side of your torso.
Intercostal neuralgia:
This condition, involving nerve pain in the rib cage, can cause sharp, spasmodic pains in the ribs.


Also, various forms of cancers can cause rib pain, including lung cancer, breast cancer, bone metastases, etc.

Remember, if you are experiencing unexplained or severe rib or back pain, you should seek immediate medical attention, as it could be indicative of a serious condition. It's always important to get a proper diagnosis from a healthcare provider, who can recommend the best course of treatment.


In conclusion, pain around the ribs and back can be indicative of a multitude of conditions, each with unique causes and symptoms. Musculoskeletal conditions, including costochondritis, fractures, muscle strains, and arthritis, are among the most common causes, often resulting from inflammation, trauma, or overuse. Respiratory conditions, including pneumonia, pleurisy, and pulmonary embolism, can lead to similar symptoms due to inflammation or blockage in the lungs.

Digestive issues such as gallstones, GERD, and pancreatitis can manifest as rib and back pain, while cardiovascular problems like angina and pericarditis can cause chest and rib discomfort. Neurological issues like shingles and intercostal neuralgia can cause pain around the ribs due to nerve involvement. Lastly, various forms of cancers can also result in rib pain.

While this overview provides a broad range of potential causes for rib and back pain, it's essential to note that each individual's experience can be vastly different. Hence, any persistent, severe, or unexplained pain that doesn’t go away with time should warrant immediate medical attention. The guidance of healthcare professionals is crucial in accurately diagnosing and treating these symptoms. They can provide personalized and appropriate care based on an individual's health history and current condition. Understanding the potential causes of such pain can help individuals seek timely medical advice and treatment, promoting better health outcomes.


Author Bio


Marlene Carvalho

Certified Sports Physiotherapist of Elite and Olympic athletes; Performance Coach to racing drivers

Marlene Carvalho is a sports physiotherapist passionate about all things sports.



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