One would think that pain from rib cramps are far from the spine. But spinal issues can trigger pain in all sorts of places in the body, including the ribs. Your spine has nerve roots and nerves that branch out throughout the body. They connect back to the brain through the central nervous system.
Through the spine, signals are received and sent by the brain to the muscles throughout your body, allowing you to voluntarily or involuntarily contract your muscles. When your muscles are involuntarily and strongly contracted, they are ‘cramping’ – the result is a very sudden pain.
Rib cramping isn’t caused by the ribs, but by the muscles around them. These are called intercostal muscles, and there are three layers, layered between and underneath your ribcage. These muscles can be pulled, inflamed, hurt, and cramping.
Rib Cramps and Pain
Not all rib pain is caused by cramping, even if you might misjudge it as such at first. Some common causes of general rib pain include bruised ribs (from physical trauma, such as a hard punch or a nasty fall) and pulled intercostal muscles (caused by sudden or extreme strain on the muscle in and around your ribcage). Other causes of rib pain include:
With sudden and extreme rib pain that causes you to be rendered inactive or accompanied by tingling and/or numb feeling is important. It must be answered with a swift visit to your nearest physician, pulmonologist, or urgent care clinic. If your pain is fresh and concerning, do not delay. The earlier the cause is identified and treated, the faster you recover, and the higher your likelihood of receiving effective treatment in a timely fashion.
What Causes Rib Cramps?
Cramps are usually harmless, or indicative of a different condition altogether. Most cramps are temporary, although recurring cramps may be a sign that you should go see a specialist (unless you’ve already been made aware of the reason for your cramping).
In most cases, cramps occur due to severe physical exertion, dehydration, or strain. Strain can be caused by overuse or by excessive or sudden resistance. Such as whiplash, trying to catch a heavy weight, or overusing the intercostal muscles in a sport (while swimming or rowing, for example).
Dehydration is a common cause for excessive cramping, highlighting either a lack of water, or certain mineral deficiencies (including potassium and calcium). If you suspect that nutrition/hydration is playing a role, shore up on bananas and bump up your water consumption.
Try to aim for 4-8 glasses of water a day, depending on your size and food intake. High sodium can also increase your need for water, because the kidneys work harder to lower salt levels (by using more water) the more sodium you consume. However, when the cause isn’t stress or hydration, there may be other reasons still for rib cramping – including your spine.
Rib Cramping and Spinal Health
Your ribs attach to the thoracic portion of the spine, which is the upper back, joining with the lumbar region in the lower back and the cervical region in the neck. Upper back injuries are rarer than lower back injuries. In no small part due to the additional structural support provided by the ribs and the multitude of muscles in the upper back.
Your upper back isn’t meant to flex as much as your lower back does (although lower back rounding should be avoided whenever any amount of resistance/weight is involved), and it’s generally healthier. But when your upper back is injured, one of the first things to go is the gel-like pocket of fluid that exists between each vertebrae.
These pockets can become swollen and inflamed in cases of injury, eventually rupturing. While swollen or ruptured, they press on the many nerves surrounding the upper back. Some of which attach to the muscles in the ribs.
Be Mindful of Any Damage
Your intercostal muscles are supplied by the intercostal nerves. Which attach to the thoracic spinal nerves in your T1 to T11 (a long column of vertebrae). Because these nerves are part of the somatic nervous system, they control sensory information for the skin and outer membrane of the pleura (lining of the lungs). Thus, damage to the skin, bone, muscle, and pleura is felt in the same generalized rib location.
Damage to these nerves can affect the way your intercostal muscles contract and relax, thus causing cramping. Sometimes, damaged, or displaced (moving) ribs can pressure the intercostal nerves, causing the same cramping and pain. The inflammatory proteins created by a ruptured disc can also agitate and inflame the thoracic spinal nerve. Which then sends the pain radiating throughout the rib area.
Thoracic osteoarthritis, which is the inflammation of the vertebrae in the upper back, can cause cartilage in the upper spine to break down. This causes the joints of the spine to grind together and create bone spurs. The combination of inflammation and nerve compression can cause radiating pain and cramping rib muscles.
Again, osteoarthritis is more common in the less-protected areas of the spine, specifically the lower back and neck. But sometimes, it can occur in the upper back.
Treating Rib Cramps at Home
If you’re experiencing a sudden rib cramp, try to stretch the muscle out. Avoid buckling over or further contracting it. By slowly lengthening your intercostal muscles, you might reduce and stop the rib cramp. A soft massage in the area can also help relax the muscles. Try to remain hydrated and give mineral supplementation a try.
If your pain is being caused by an underlying problem that isn’t addressed through food or a short break from exercising, then all you can do is address the pain itself, but not the cause. Visit a doctor and tell them about your symptoms. They will likely run an x-ray and other diagnostic tests to see if they can determine an obvious cause and go from there.
If you’ve recently (or ever) experienced a major injury in the upper back or chest/abdomen, be sure to inform your physician. Whatever you do, do not ignore the pain.