Running from the neck to the abdomen, the thoracic spine is protected, to some extent, by the ribcage. It also protects the heart and lungs and other vital structures. However, this fairly durable series of a dozen curved bones can also become a source of pain if you have a rib that’s bruised, cracked, or affected by irritated soft tissues or nerves. In some cases, the thoracic spine is a contributing factor. Below you’ll find possible spine-related sources of rib pain.
A rib is sometimes cracked (fractured) due to trauma at the point where it connects to the thoracic spine. The resulting tissue swelling may contribute to muscle cramps between your ribs that could cause you to feel some pain, especially as you make certain movements. Intercostal nerves that stem from your thoracic spinal nerves may be affected as well. The resulting discomfort might include:
• Pain within the rib area
• Tingling and/or numbness along the affected rib
• Discomfort that extends to the chest and sometimes the abdomen
A hard fall or impact can also cause a rib to shift out of place. In some instances, rib displacement occurs because part of a rib becomes excessively mobile (hypermobile), which can happen with or without trauma or injury. Displacement usually occurs if there’s a weak spot in either the front of the rib or the back part by an adjacent vertebra.
Herniated discs usually develop in areas of the spine that are more mobile, such as the lower back and neck. For this reason, thoracic herniated discs are considered rare. However, if you do have a spinal disc that becomes damaged in this area, inflammatory proteins may leak from the inner portion of the disc and irritate a nearby thoracic spinal nerve. The resulting discomfort may be experienced as pain and/or numbness and tingling sensations that radiate away from the source to the following areas:
• The upper back along the ribs
• The chest area
• The abdomen
Discomfort may be intermittent. Symptoms could also be aggravated by certain movements, such as bending or vigorous exercise. Herniated discs around the rib area can develop due to injury or age-related wear (degenerative disc disease). In severe cases, a spine specialist may recommend a surgical procedure such as extreme lateral interbody fusion. Beverly Hills patients with long-term back or neck pain often find relief immediately following this type of surgery.
Osteoarthritis (OA) is often coupled with age-related disc wear, although OA can develop separately. Joints affected by this common type of arthritis grind together more as protective cartilage wears away, which could cause growths called bone spurs (osteophytes) to form. OA-related damage in the thoracic spine may contribute to rib pain by:
• Triggering muscle cramps in the muscles between the ribs (intercostal muscles)
• Causing nerve inflammation that triggers nerve-based symptoms (e.g., pain and/or tingling sensations felt along the rib cage into the chest and abdomen)
• Affecting the costovertebral and costotransverse joints that link the ribs to the thoracic spine
Rib pain sometimes goes away with a little rest and the modification of normal activities until bones and tissues heal. If this isn’t happening, see your doctor to find out what’s going on. If it’s believed a spine-related problem could be contributing to your rib discomfort, you may be referred to a Beverly Hills spine surgeon for further evaluation.
If you’re experiencing severe or persistent rib pain you suspect may be related to your spine, see a spine specialist as soon as possible for diagnosis and treatment. The spinal health experts at The Spine Institute lead the industry with years of experience treating every type of back and neck pain. Call one of our friendly representatives today at 310-828-7757 to schedule a consultation.