What's this recurring occasional sharp pain in my ribs?
August 23, 2011 7:46 AM   Subscribe

Maybe once or twice a year for as long as I can remember, I've had a short-lived sharp pain at a certain spot in my ribs. It doesn't seem to be related to anything else going on with my body, once it stops I'm not sore, and I have no idea what it is or why it happens. Is this a thing people are familiar with?

It generally lasts anywhere between fifteen minutes and a couple of hours. I've got a marathon session going on now where it started yesterday evening and has stuck with me all night.

It's very localized; I'd say it feels like it's in or right at my ribcage, a couple inches below my nipple. I haven't taken notes so I can't swear it's always been at exactly that spot when it has happened in the past, but it's always been in that same region at least.

It doesn't throb or ache; there is only pain when I am in specific positions or inhale sufficiently deeply, and the pain immediately recedes to nothing again if I exhale or change position.

I'd say the pain feels a little like the stitch in your side you can get while running, though it's been a while since I've given myself a stitch like that so I can't swear by the comparison.

I've never talked to a doctor about it because it happens so infrequently, lasts so briefly, and has never caused me any problems; generally I've forgotten about it entirely the next day. The half-a-day variant right now has me thinking I should at least run it by my GP, but it'd be great to have a more specific idea of what the heck it is or how to describe it if anybody has experienced this.
posted by cortex to Health & Fitness (35 answers total) 11 users marked this as a favorite
i have no advice or directions on how to pinpoint a cause, but i also get these in very much the way you described. once or twice a year, a sharp stab, usually in the same (general) place, once it passes there are no lingering effects. mine tend to last less time than the 15 minutes you're describing (mine are in the one-to-five minute range), but otherwise exactly the same.
posted by radiosilents at 7:51 AM on August 23, 2011

I get a similar sharp pain right where my sternum meets my ribs, which I attribute to condochondritis. Sometimes it's just a short burst of sharp pain, sometimes it kind of lingers. If you press on the area, can you replicate the pain/discomfort?
posted by jenny76 at 7:52 AM on August 23, 2011

I get this every month or so! I've heard it's something to do with soreness in the intercostal muscles and that it's completely harmless.
posted by theodolite at 7:52 AM on August 23, 2011 [2 favorites]

Which side?
posted by zeek321 at 7:53 AM on August 23, 2011

I've had an intermittent pain like this for over forty years, mine is roughly the same spot but more to the side on my left. I had it checked out back in the dark ages and, after a chest x-ray and a whole lot of poking by my GP he said "Hmm. Maybe some day, if it gets worse or lasts more than a week, you ought to have that looked at."
It hasn't, and I haven't.
posted by Floydd at 7:55 AM on August 23, 2011

Response by poster: If you press on the area, can you replicate the pain/discomfort?

Nope! Pressing the area even firmly doesn't prompt any pain. Really the only way I can produce it on purpose is the same way I produce it by accident: contorting my torso and/or breathing deeply. I can pull off a significantly deeper, nearly full-lung breath by curling forward; if I arch my back the pain shows up much sooner in a breath.

In general it has zero effect on normal breathing when I'm going about my business—I wouldn't want to go for a run like this and sneezing probably would not be fun, but otherwise it's pretty unintrusive if I'm just taking it easy.

Which side?

Oops! On my right side.
posted by cortex at 7:57 AM on August 23, 2011

I've had a similar thing and my chiropractor friend said that this type of thing is caused by a strained rib. The ribs up top are particularly liable to straining, and take a very long time to heal. When I was waitressing, I would be overdoing it and this pain would become sharp and constant for hours, but when I rested it would go back to being intermittent. Now that I've been doing less physically demanding jobs, I haven't noticed the pain for months.

If you've done something that could have put extra pressure on the area or strained it, that's the most likely explanation. From what my chiro friend said, there's not really a way to treat it. Just be careful not to overdo it in the area (such as lifting heavy boxes...) and it should heal on its own.
posted by DoubleLune at 8:01 AM on August 23, 2011

Maybe Precordial Catch Syndrome?
posted by MsMolly at 8:02 AM on August 23, 2011 [5 favorites]

I've experienced something pretty much exactly like what you describe but thought it was just me. It's happened every so often ever since I can remember - but very infrequently, like yours. I've mentioned it to my mom and my wife once or twice (both of whom are physicians); neither one had any ideas and just said "if it doesn't go away, let me know" - it always has. I don't remember it ever lasting as long as you're talking about right now - I think it's always passed in a couple hours or less.
posted by nickmark at 8:11 AM on August 23, 2011

I sometimes get the same pain when I'm, um, constipated or gassy. A friend of mine also reports the same when she's constipated.
posted by Sassyfras at 8:17 AM on August 23, 2011

My first thought was acid reflux.
posted by desjardins at 8:27 AM on August 23, 2011

Yeah, sounds a little like intestinal gas. Maybe follow the symptoms and see if you can put two and number two together. sorry, couldn't resist
posted by exogenous at 8:28 AM on August 23, 2011 [1 favorite]

I absolutely can relate, except my stitches don't go away with a change of position, and I get them probably once or twice a month. It usually takes several deep inhalations before they go away and the stitch can be quite painful with breathing. And when they do go away, it's almost as if something snaps, even though nothing is snapping. Does that make sense?

Anyway, yeah, I've had these all my life, so has my husband, and my kids report this, too. I have no idea what causes them and my doctor says he gets them too (it's an epidemic 'round here!) and to not worry about it unless an episode lasts for hours. As for what I'd do if an episode did last for hours...I don't know. We've never had to investigate.
posted by cooker girl at 8:29 AM on August 23, 2011

I get these too! A couple of times a year.

I always attributed it to a strained muscle or my rib was slightly out of alignment.. since it only happens when you inhale deeply. Usually it's enough to make me exhale real quick and go: "stupid, don't do that!"

My vote is another: that's normal.

but I'm going to keep an eye on this thread
posted by royalsong at 8:44 AM on August 23, 2011

Could be Precordial Catch Syndrome.
posted by drlith at 8:46 AM on August 23, 2011 [2 favorites]

Oh my goodness, drlith, that description sounds exactly like what I feel.
posted by cooker girl at 8:54 AM on August 23, 2011

Another vote here for precordial catch syndrome.
posted by overeducated_alligator at 9:06 AM on August 23, 2011

The lung is inside a double-walled membrane called the pleura. The outer membrane is fixed to the chest wall and has the pain nerves, and the inner membrane is over the lungs and moves with them as you breathe, and that causes the two membranes to slide past each other with each breath.

The fact that you can partly avoid this pain by curling forward makes me think there's some feature on the lung or lung pleura that's rubbing the chest wall pleura a little raw sometimes.

Could be a scar or the like. I assume you've had a TB test since you first had this pain and that it was negative.
posted by jamjam at 9:09 AM on August 23, 2011

I have a sharply bent rib resulting from breaking it without getting it looked at. In certain positions it gives me a sharp pain; but I cannot replicate that pain from pressing down on it. (It will be uncomfortable, but it's a different feeling all together.)

Do you have a weirdly shaped rib? Have you ever cracked one?
posted by spaltavian at 9:12 AM on August 23, 2011

I get these symptoms occasionally and they do seem to be associated with gas, wrt me. ymmv.
posted by zomg at 9:17 AM on August 23, 2011

Sounds like it may be trigger points. Feel along the spaces between the ribs (esp. along the collar bone, sternum, and smack dab in the middle of the pec muscle) and notice if anything feels like a knot, or if there is a replication of the pain you've been feeling. Rub those knots/spots with slow deep pressure 6-8 times and see how you feel after that.

More info in The Trigger Point Therapy Workbook.
posted by sazanka at 9:31 AM on August 23, 2011

I get exactly this; it's happened to me from time to time all my life, with no identifiable trigger. When I first described it to my mother, she told me it was indigestion, and so I've always taken indigestion tablets for it; possibly through the placebo effect, they seem to work.
posted by ManyLeggedCreature at 9:34 AM on August 23, 2011

I had something that sounds a lot like this when I was younger. It was a pretty frequent irritant, but did taper off eventually, sometime in my early 30s. Doctors suggested assorted answers, including most of those above and even angina, although that was never backed up by tests. If I had to guess, I'd say mine was probably the Precordial Catch Syndrome.

I could also see your description possibly applying to a hiatal hernia, though.

Assuming your current situation gets better in the usual due coarse, I recommend bringing this up to your regular physician during your next full physical. It doesn't sound emergent, but it's still worth discussing. Obviously, if you don't feel better soon, though, or if you feel worse... you know what to do. DTMFA. (Doctor the MFA)

Feel better.
posted by It's Raining Florence Henderson at 10:24 AM on August 23, 2011

Of course I'm no doctor...yadda...yadda... but about 6 years ago I had a similarly reoccurring pain in the evenings on the side of my ribcage. It lasted a couple hours each time but in my case the pain floated from my chest (below nipple area) down to around the floating rib area and there was slight nausea associated with it as well. It was scary and I thought it was a precursor to a heart attack or something. Then after several days of this pain I had the attack - a kidney stone attack. Never had one before - never want to have one again. As the kidney stones move around in the kidney beyond people can experience pain in various locations. The chest and rib area is not uncommon.

No idea of course if this is related to your pain but what you wrote reminded me of that experience. See a Doctor.
posted by Poet_Lariat at 10:53 AM on August 23, 2011

I've had this for years in roughly the area you describe, although it can happen on both left and right, and sometimes around the sides too. At one point it started to be pretty focused around the middle of my chest and slightly up and to the left, lasting longer than normal, and that got pretty scary! However, the paramedics said I was fine, doc says I'm fine, and guess what? I'm fine! I can't remember the exact explanation doc gave me, but it was something like a muscle occasionally deciding it didn't want to go with the flow. Generally if I ignore it for 10 minutes, it'll go away.

If you're still worried, see a doc, because patient history and lots of other little questions they know to ask you reveal things that Random Internet Dudes will never be able to.

I still think you'll be fine though.
posted by fearnothing at 10:53 AM on August 23, 2011

Nthing Precordial Catch Syndrome. I've had this for as long as I can remember and only recently figured it out. It's one of the most common causes of pediatric chest pain (in actuality, probably the most common. It's a diagnosis of exclusion, usually no findings on physical exam, and treatment is "supportive" because episodes resolve on their own.
posted by honeybee413 at 10:54 AM on August 23, 2011

I used to get something similar, on the right. Since I started pouring in calcium & vitamin D, it doesn't happen anymore.
posted by ahaynes at 11:30 AM on August 23, 2011

And I'm another one who's just discovered that she's been experiencing Precordial Catch Syndrome all her life! Thanks for asking, and I hope yours is nothing more serious.
posted by sianifach at 11:41 AM on August 23, 2011

I hope the many varied answers here convince you to go see a doctor for further clarification. Particularly because your pain is so long lasting. Plus a good doctor will ask you pertinent questions that we non-doctors would never think to ask.
posted by pablocake at 11:59 AM on August 23, 2011

Might be costochondritis. But to test for costochondritis, a doctor won't just press where it hurts - they would start at the xiphoid process and go up the sternum - this will flex your costal cartilage and perhaps reproduce the sensation. I would start to really worry if the pain radiated or intensified with activity. Go to a GP - but I don't think it needs to be rushed.
I'm not a doctor, I'm not your doctor, and this is not medical advice.
posted by Drama Penguin at 1:41 PM on August 23, 2011

I have the same thing. Doc suggested gas, but I know what gas feels like and this isn't it. I thought it might be a hernia due to it being by my diaphragm.
posted by deborah at 3:59 PM on August 23, 2011

31 answers and no one's mentioned cancer yet? That must violate some law of "asking the internet a health question."

I guess it falls to me!

My neighbor had a weird, transient pain like this for many years. Although hers was situated a little lower down. Eventually she had a REALLY bad occurrence, went to the doctor, they did an ultrasound and found a tumor the size of a softball in her belly.

It had been causing pains as it knocked around, but the final occurrence of pain happened because it had managed to twist itself around. Conceivably if they hadn't caught it, it could have led to tissue necrosis due to pinching off the blood supply in a section of her colon or something.

I really don't think you have cancer. But I'd say this is something that warrants asking a Real Doctor.
posted by ErikaB at 4:17 PM on August 23, 2011

If it is the layers of pleura rubbing together as I suggested above, a doctor with a stethoscope would hear that as a rough, scratchy sound.

I'd imagine a good microphone inside a paper cup would also pick it up, and you could hear it yourself or record it.
posted by jamjam at 5:05 PM on August 23, 2011 [2 favorites]

Seconding jamjam's pleura suggestion - I had the exact same symptoms in the run up to and aftermath of various pleural problems, including my lungs collapsing a few times due to apical pleural blebs.

Sorry to bring up something so scary-sounding, but I'd defo get this checked out by a doctor.

(Also, are you tall and thin? Tall thin men are especially prone to pleural weirdness...)
posted by jack_mo at 11:28 AM on August 24, 2011 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: So, the pain eased off over the next couple days and there's been as usual no sign of it after the fact. I booked a doctor's appointment (I needed to have a physical and get a tetanus shot in any case) and talked about the rib pain issue, after it had already been gone for a few days, and based on the description and a little bit of chest poking and such she wasn't really concerned about it. I told her I would let her know if it recurred/intensified.

Based on the googling I was doing around when I posted this, and granting that it's lay speculation and not something I'm treating as an actual self-diagnosis, I'd guess it's more likely some sort of mild costochondritis than precordial catch syndrome; the descriptions of PCS seem both far more acute in terms of overall pain level and more short-lived than what I can recall experiencing. But if it does come back to bother me in a significant way I'll definitely bring both of those up to the doc.
posted by cortex at 12:21 PM on September 22, 2011

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