Sore Ribs from Coughing

Excessive coughing for whatever reason uses a lot of the muscles in the rib cage and an extended episode of coughing can put those muscles under a lot of strain.The strain can translate to sore ribs and pain to other associated muscles in the area used to breathe.Movement in your upper body may become difficult. Simple motions like sneezing or even breathing deeply can cause you pain.How will you know if the pain will subside over time or to be more concerned and seek medical attention?

Can Coughing Cause Rib Pain?

Yes, coughing can most certainly be the reason for your rib pain. This occurs because the muscles between each individual rib, called the intercostal muscles, become exhausted after excessive coughing. The intercostal muscles are used in both breathing and coughing. When these muscles contract, they make the thoracic cavity larger so that air can flow in. The thoracic cavity contains the lungs, amongst other organs. When the thoracic cavity is made larger by contracting intercostal muscles and at the same time the diaphragm pulls downward, the extra space created makes a negative air pressure in that space. This negative air pressure pulls air into the lungs. This is the inhale. The act of exhaling and coughing follows the opposite process. The intercostal muscles, diaphragm and other associated components make the thoracic cavity smaller to force stale air out.

Why Do You Have Sore Ribs from Coughing?

The pain in the ribs during coughing can be due to other reasons as well:

1. Costochondritis

This is an inflammation of the cartilage between the ribs. People with this condition typically have pain and sensitivity in the front of the chest- where the ribs join the sternum (breast bone). The exertion of violent coughing or sneezing will cause the ribs to ache in this condition. People with this condition will also experience painful breathing because of the inflammation of the intercostal muscles.

2. Lung Diseases

Conditions like pleurisy can cause the soreness. Pleurisy is the inflammation of the pleura, which are membranes that enclose the lungs. Inflammation of the pleura means that fluid builds up between the pleura. This causes pain when the chest expands and deflates to inhale and exhale.

3. Joint Diseases

Older people with conditions such as osteoporosis or osteoarthritis have reduced bone density and strength. The consequence is that any small injury can lead to cracked ribs which will cause sore ribs from coughing. As a person grows older, cartilage will also wear down faster than it can regenerate.

When to Seek Medical Attention

  • You are out of breath quite suddenly.
  • Pain that increases rather than diminishes with time.
  • If you have a pre-existing medical condition concerning weakened bones like rheumatoid arthritis, osteoarthritis or osteoporosis. The sore ribs while coughing can be due to cracked ribs.
  • If you have an infection like pleurisy, you need medication to clear the infection to prevent any long-term adverse effects.
  • Persistent pain of the rib cage that doesn't subside with rest and mild painkillers. If the pain has not subsided after about 3 to 4 days seek a doctor's advice.

It is better to have a diagnosis and treatment to prevent soreness from coughing. You may be avoiding other permanent problems if you seek medical care.

How to Relieve Sore Ribs from Coughing

If you suspect that you have pulled a muscle from a bout of coughing:

  • Try to rest the area of the affected muscle by minimizing movement in that area. This will give the muscle the respite to heal. Avoid carrying heavy objects that may strain the muscle further.
  • Get medication to treat the cough. Once the coughing stops, the muscle will have time to heal. Depending on the type of cough you have, you may either be prescribed a cough suppressant or an expectorant. There are also lozenges available to soothe the tickle in the throat that causes the cough.
  • Take medication for the strained muscle. There are many over-the-counter formulations that you can take to reduce the pain of the strained muscle.
  • Use a cold compress to decrease any inflammation and swelling of the area. Reduced swelling and inflammation will also help with pain. You can place an ice pack wrapped in a cloth on the painful area for 15 minutes at a time at 2 hour intervals. Avoid placing the ice directly onto the skin as it will cause tissue damage.
  • A compression dressing can be applied to the area but be careful not to wrap it too tightly. You do not want to impede breathing. Instead you can try some breathing exercises–breathe deeply every few minutes and expel the breath slowly.
  • If it is possible to keep the stained muscle above the heart, do so. If this is not feasible, rest on the opposite side as the injury.
  • Sore ribs from coughing can be aggravated by heat, exercise, massage and alcohol. Avoid these elements if you want to ensure the muscle heals rapidly. Avoid taking hot baths or applying heating pads to the area. Massage may worsen the injury. Avoid alcohol for the same reason. Exercise will force the strained muscle to move a lot, hindering the healing.
  • After about 3 days, gentle heat can be applied to the affected muscle. You can start moving the area slowly and massage lightly.
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