Rib and back pain can be debilitating and painful, but why does this pain occur? We’ll discuss 7 common causes of this type of pain.
Rib and back pain can range from troublesome to debilitating. Whether it’s an oncoming common cold or a strained intercostal muscle, pain throughout the torso and core could be a sign of deeper troubles to come. It’s important to get any pain in your chest checked out by a doctor – even if it feels relatively minor.
Chest strains, rib pain, and back issues can often be caused by an old injury, an arthritic episode, or changes in weather, but they can also be a sign of neuralgia, anxiety and stress-related reactions, or heart issues. Let’s go over some of the most common causes of rib and back pain.
The muscles surrounding the ribs and back contract, stretch, and brace involuntarily and voluntarily to facilitate breathing, protect your vital organs, and help you stay mobile. But as we age, we’re more likely to strain these muscles, even with a simple twist, bend, or turn.
Muscle strains are best described as an overstretched muscle fiber. These are different from sprains, which affect your ligaments. Commonly strained muscles throughout the back and torso include your intercostal muscles, chest muscles, and the major muscles of the back (particularly the trapezius, the rhombodius, and the erector spinae).
When a muscle is overstretched, the muscle fibers themselves become damaged as they’re pulled past their limits. Bruising and pain can ensue, alongside a long recovery period as the muscle slowly heals.
Anti-inflammatories, over-the-counter painkillers, and ice can help reduce swelling and combat pain. Recovery exercises, mild stretches, and a healthy mixture of rest and movement sometime after the injury can help patients regain strength in a strained muscle and build up both flexibility and resilience to avoid a recurring injury.
Sometimes, muscle strains are a sign of a deeper issue. Sometimes, they’re a common injury caused by overexertion or sedentary living. Depending on a patient’s history, a doctor may look for other signs of deteriorating back health after a strain, such as:
Another common source of back pain after overexertion or a sudden muscle strain is a herniated disc. Disc herniation occurs when the spongy discs between the bony vertebrae of the spine begin to swell and rupture.
The contents of the disc can put pressure on the surrounding nerve roots, sending burning or shoot pains down the back, buttocks, arms, and legs, depending on which disc was herniated. Most disc herniation occurs in the bottom portion of the spine, or the lumbar region.
Disc herniation can also occur without symptoms and might only be aggravated years later. The older we get, the higher our risk for herniation. Inactivity and poor diet, including low water intake, can boost the risk for disc degeneration and lower back pain.
Spinal Bone Spurs
Rib and back pain can also be caused by spinal bone spurs. The spine protects the spinal cord, while leaving room for nerve roots to branch out throughout the rest of the body and facilitate everything from basic mobility to involuntary bodily functions, including sweating, breathing, and heartbeats.
Aside from disc herniation, another cause of impingement and compression on the nerves around the spine is a bone spur. Bone spurs are growths of bony tissue, or bony projections, that often grow around the edges of your bones.
Bone spurs develop at points in your body where two bones meet. Because your spine is composed of many individual joints linking together, these benign growths can be quite common, and painful.
As our discs dry out, the risk of bone spur growth increases when bones clash and grind and lose mass. This is one of the reasons why bone spurs, or osteophytes, are more common in older people diagnosed with osteoarthritis or disc degeneration.
Fibromyalgia is an oft poorly understood condition characterized by chronic muscle pain in multiple points throughout the body. It is characterized as a type of arthritis, and as an autoimmune condition, but the mechanism behind fibromyalgia is not yet fully understood.
Treatments for it center around the management and reduction of pain and other symptoms, particularly fatigue and sleeplessness.
Improving quality of life through sleep therapy and sleep hygiene, regular exercise, a balanced diet, and mental health treatment can also reduce the chronic pain associated with fibromyalgia. Some patients with fibromyalgia also respond more strongly to food sensitivities/intolerances and may require special diets.
Shingles can also be a factor of rib and back pain. Shingles is the reactivated form of chickenpox, an illness caused by infection with the varicella-zoster virus. After its first infection, it can lay dormant in the body for decades. Postherpetic neuralgia (nerve pain) caused by shingles can be felt throughout the body, especially around the back and chest/ribs. Other symptoms of a reactivated varicella-zoster virus include rashes, fluid-filled blisters, and itching.
Vaccines are the primary preventative treatment for shingles, both for adults and children who have and haven’t had chickenpox. Those affected by shingles can be treated with analgesic medication, both oral and topical, as well as antiviral drugs to combat the infection itself.
Stress Fractures and Injuries
Aside from muscle strains, another common cause of rib and back pain is a bone fracture. Stress fractures are most common in contact sports and workplace accidents and can be caused by anything from a long fall to a kick to the chest.
Cardiopulmonary resuscitation, or CPR, may also cause fractures in the ribs and rarely the sternum, particularly in older individuals with lower bone density. Ribs can also be bruised without fracturing, which can cause a lot of pain. Osteoporosis increases the risk of rib fractures quite substantially, making them a lot more common.
Lung, Heart, and Other Conditions
Not all sources of rib and back pain are musculoskeletal or related strictly to your bones and muscles.
Aside from injuries, viral infections, inflammatory conditions, rheumatoid conditions, degeneration, and malignancies, your organ health can also cause rib and back pain – and in severe cases, it’s difficult to distinguish between the pain caused by enlarged spleen and rib fracture.
Heart attacks, GERD, liver scarring, fluid buildup in your chest cavity, and different lung conditions such as pneumonia can cause severe chest and back pain.
If you’re experiencing a stabbing, burning, or tingling sensation in your torso, or any kind of rib or back pain, it’s best not to assume anything. Call a doctor or emergency services immediately and get the help you need. The earlier your condition is diagnosed, the better your chances for a swift and uncomplicated recovery.