Rib Pain When Coughing: Is It Serious?

If you’re experiencing rib pain from coughing, you’ve come to the right place.

The causes range from benign (like a muscle strain) to more serious (pleurisy).

If it’s a muscle strain, then it can easily be cured by resting. If it’s pleurisy, you should see a doctor.

But first, you need to determine what’s causing your symptom. Below, we’ll talk about the 5 causes of rib pain when coughing.

Cause #1: Pleurisy

The lungs, like many organs in the body, are covered by a thin membrane called the pleura.

The pleura is there to reduce friction between the lungs and surrounding organs.

If this membrane becomes inflamed, then it’s called pleurisy. The pain associated with pleurisy can be extreme.

Not only will you experience severe rib pain while coughing, but also when you’re sneezing or bending over.

Many patients also develop a dry cough, which is caused by the lungs attempting to clear out fluid that isn’t there.

If you think you have pleurisy, then visit a doctor as soon as possible.

Summary: When the pleura (the lining of the lungs) becomes inflamed, it’s called pleurisy. It can lead to rib pain as well as a dry cough.

Cause #2: Intercostal Muscle Strain

The intercostal muscles are responsible for respiration and coughing.

If you cough too forcefully, you can strain these muscles. This can lead to pain along the ribs each time that you cough.

What exactly is a muscle “strain”? It’s when you overstretch or tear your muscle because of fatigue, misuse, or in this case, overuse.

A chronic cough can result in the overuse of your intercostal muscles, leading to pain.

Muscle strains aren’t considered a medical emergency, but can still be annoying and ruin your quality of life.

Fortunately, once your cough goes away, it will give your intercostal muscle strain time to heal.

Summary: Coughing can lead to rib pain by straining the intercostal muscles (the muscles that control breathing and coughing).

Cause #3: Degenerative Joint Diseases

If you’re an older person, then osteoporosis or osteoarthritis could be the cause.

These degenerative joint diseases can cause severe rib pain during coughing episodes. The ribs are connected to other bones by cartilage.

The cartilage is what allows you to expand your rib cage during respiration. If the cartilage begins to break down, or if it becomes inflamed, it can lead to pain.

Unfortunately, there’s currently no cure for osteoporosis and osteoarthritis.

However, lifestyle and dietary changes can help reduce the severity of your symptoms.

Summary: Your symptom can be due to degenerative joint diseases like osteoarthritis or osteoporosis.

Cause #4: Costochondritis

Costochondritis is a fancy way of saying “inflamed cartilage”.

As we mentioned in the previous section, cartilage is what holds the ribs to the surrounding bones.

If the cartilage becomes inflamed, either through overuse or disease, then you may experience pain and tenderness upon coughing.

Many patients with this condition report experiencing pain on the left side of their chest.

The pain can range from dull and chronic to sudden and severe.

It can get worse whenever you make any sudden movements like sneezing or coughing, or even when you’re bending down.

Summary: If you have inflamed cartilage in your ribs (known as costochondritis), it can lead to severe pain.

#5: Physical Trauma

It doesn’t take much force to injure a rib (or several). If you participate in extreme sports, then you’re more likely to damage your ribs.

Physical trauma can also be the result of an accident (like a car accident for example). You can strain the muscle or the surrounding tendons.

Sometimes you can bruise the bone itself, which can lead to extreme pain.

Aside from rib pain when coughing, you may have difficulty taking in full, deep breaths. This is a telltale sign that you have a rib injury.

Another clear sign that you’ve injured your ribs is that they’ll be bruised, swollen, red, and tender. In most cases, the pain will go away on its own by resting.

Summary: Rib pain associated with coughing can be the result of physical trauma (either from extreme sports or an accident).

When Should You See a Doctor?

How long should you wait to see a doctor about your rib pain?

Generally, if the pain hasn’t subsided after a week or two, or if it’s getting worse, then you’ll need to see a physician to rule out a serious disease.

Look out for additional symptoms like:

  • Shortness of breath
  • Chest pain that radiates to the left jaw or shoulder
  • Dizziness
  • Coughing up blood
  • Fever
  • Extreme fatigue

Pain that radiates towards the left jaw or shoulder is a sign of a heart attack and should be taken very seriously.

If you have a combination of the symptoms listed above, then you could have a serious chest infection or be experiencing something else life-threatening.

We recommend getting to a hospital immediately if you’re feeling dizzy, have a fever, or can’t catch your breath.

Summary: Symptoms like fever, coughing up blood, and dizziness could signify a life-threatening condition.

Rib Pain From Coughing – Can it Be Cured?

Here are some ways to deal with your symptom:

  • Drugs: The type of drug you take will depend on the cause of your rib pain from coughing. For example, if it’s caused by a bacterium then you should take antibiotics. If it’s caused by a virus then anti-viral medication is required.
  • Ice Therapy: If your pain is due to physical trauma, then applying ice to your ribs can reduce the pain and inflammation. Ice your ribs for about 20 minutes at a time. Repeat 4-5 times per day for maximum effect.
  • Rest: Most of the time you can make your symptom go away by resting. Since this symptom is often due to overuse, resting your strained rib muscles will give them time to heal. If you don’t get enough rest, you’ll simply re-strain your muscle.

Your doctor may prescribe a combination of the above therapies until you feel better.

Summary: A combination of ice therapy, rest, and drugs can help you deal with your rib pain.

Bottom Line

If you have rib pain every time you cough, don’t automatically assume it’s a muscle strain.

It could be something more serious like a lung clot or severe lung infection. While these aren’t as likely, they’re still possible.

This isn’t a symptom that you should take lightly. It could be potentially life-threatening, so it’s better to be safe than sorry.

If the pain hasn’t gone away after a week or two, schedule a visit with your doctor.

Ask a Question: If you want to ask a medical doctor a question that hasn't been answered in one of our articles go to: Ask a Medical Doctor About your Symptoms

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