Rib Pain Caused by a Herniated Disc: Symptoms & Solutions

Do you think that you might be experiencing rib pain caused by a thoracic herniated disc? This article will explain how herniated discs in the thoracic region can lead to rib pain. You'll find information on the symptoms and various treatment options available.

Can rib pain be caused by a thoracic herniated disc?

Think of the discs in your spine as soft, cushion-like pads between the bones. A herniated disc occurs when the inner gel-like part pushes through the outer layer. Sometimes this causes no symptoms, but in some cases it can push on a nerve, or the gel-like material can irritate a nerve, causing symptoms such as pain or tingling.

So, a thoracic herniated disc can cause pain in the ribs, and can also cause tingling or numbness in the ribs, depending on its severity. This happens because the herniation can press on nerves that travel along the ribs, causing discomfort that often feels like it's spreading from one location to another.

Symptoms of thoracic herniated disc rib pain

The pain from a herniated disc in the middle back (thoracic spine) can vary greatly. It might feel like slight tenderness, severe cramping, or a burning sensation across the chest. Sometimes, there might not be any pain at all.

Radiating pain

Thoracic disc herniation often causes a gripping pain in the middle back that feels like a tight band around the chest. This pain can get worse with certain movements or actions. The discomfort comes from a pinched nerve and starts in the upper back, spreading along the rib toward the chest or abdomen, following the path of the nerves.

Tingling & numbness

Pain, tingling, and numbness following the path of a rib toward the chest or abdomen can indicate nerve compression due to a herniated disc. These symptoms might signal myelopathy, which is a condition where the spinal cord is affected. If left untreated, it could lead to more serious issues like difficulty walking or bowel problems.

Muscle spasms

Imagine your muscles suddenly tightening in a painful and involuntary contraction. This is what people experience during muscle spasms caused by nerve irritation from a herniated disc in the thoracic spine. These spasms, especially in the muscles between the ribs (intercostal muscles), show the complex role of the thoracic spine and the wide-ranging effects its problems can cause.

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Does a herniated disc always cause rib pain?

No, a herniated disc does not always cause rib pain. So while you may have been diagnosed with a herniated disc, it does not necessarily mean that it is the reason for your pain. It sounds strange, but in one study, 90 people who were not experiencing pain had MRIs (magnetic resonance imaging) and 33 of them found out that they had a herniated disc1.

Sometimes, thoracic disc herniations are just incidental findings. Correctly diagnosing the pain's cause is more important than an MRI showing a herniated disc. Other conditions like referred pain or central sensitization might be causing your rib pain.

Central sensitization

Central sensitization is a condition where the central nervous system (the brain and spinal cord) becomes overly sensitive to stimuli that normally wouldn't cause pain. This increased sensitivity can lead to a stronger response to stimuli from the body, and can result in you experiencing more pain than you would expect. You might even feel pain without there being any injury or external cause.

Research indicates that any pain, such as rib pain, can be influenced by the central nervous system2. This means that pain isn't just due to physical issues, such as a herniated disc, it's also significantly affected by how the brain and spinal cord process signals. This means that pain can feel more intense and widespread than you would expect3.

Causes & risk factors of herniated discs

A herniated disc can occur for various reasons.

Ageing

As we naturally age, the discs that cushion your spine gradually lose some of their strength and flexibility. This process can make the discs more prone to herniation. Think of it like a rubber band that has been stretched many times – it becomes less elastic and more likely to break under pressure.

Ageing doesn't mean that you definitely will have a herniation, and as discussed above, it also doesn't mean that things have to hurt. You can think of these internal signs of ageing in the exact same way that you think of external signs of ageing, such as your face developing wrinkles or your hair turning gray. Although ageing makes us more prone to these things, they don't have to hurt.

Trauma & injury

Sudden events such as car accidents or falls can put a lot of stress on the spine and can cause injuries. If you've been in an accident, check in with your healthcare provider so that you can work together to check for injuries and monitor your recovery.

Genetic factors

Genetics can also play a role in the development of a herniated thoracic disc. Some people may be more prone to this condition due to their family history. Generally, men between 40 and 60 years old are more likely to experience this issue, but knowing this can help you be proactive in maintaining your spine health, and hence prevent rib pain.

Lifestyle factors

Adopting healthy lifestyle choices can greatly benefit your spine. A balanced diet rich in essential nutrients supports your body's natural healing processes and helps keep your discs strong. Regular, gentle exercises, such as swimming, improve blood flow and maintain the health of your discs.

Managing stress is also important, because a relaxed mind contributes to better overall health, including the health of your spine. By focusing on a healthy lifestyle and staying active, you can enhance your wellbeing and support your spine, reducing the likelihood of spinal issues and other healthcare concerns4.

Diagnosis of thoracic herniated discs

Most thoracic disc herniations are without symptoms, and are typically found incidentally during an MRI5. However, if you are experiencing rib pain, it might be helpful to diagnose the root cause of the pain.

Speaking with a medical professional about your rib pain can be helpful regardless if you:

  • Suspect you may have a thoracic herniated disc
  • Have been already been diagnosed with a thoracic disc herniation.

The professional then might do a physical examination or recommend imaging studies to get a better understanding.

Physical examination

A hands-on physical examination can identify subtle pain and sensory changes that might suggest a thoracic herniated disc. This type of exam helps determine if a herniated disc might be present and, more importantly, if it’s the source of your pain.

Imaging studies

Using imaging techniques, such as MRI and CT scans, can provide an intimate view of the spine’s anatomy, and might help to identify herniated discs and their effects on adjacent tissues.

Treatment options for rib pain caused by herniated discs

For most people, a herniated disc will heal by itself within three months. The main role of treatment when addressing rib pain from a thoracic herniated disc is to reduce pain and any other symptoms, while the body works its magic.

Because treatments usually don't need to "fix" the physical damage, the primary treatment strategy typically involves non-invasive methods to relieve pain and improve function. However, if these efforts don't provide enough relief, other options may be considered.

Retraining your pain

To understand how we can influence our brain's interpretation of pain, it is essential to recognize that pain is not just a physical sensation. It is a complex experience influenced by emotions, thoughts, and the environment.

The first step is to identify what makes your pain worse. This could be stress, negative thinking, or specific activities. Once you know these triggers, you can start to change them. This might involve eating a healthier diet, improving your sleep, staying active, or learning new ways to think about and respond to these triggers. With time and practice, you can teach your brain to handle pain differently. This can make the pain less intense and less of a problem in your life.

Using physical therapy

Physical therapy can help you learn how to move your body safely and in a way that doesn't exacerbate your pain. More importantly, physical therapy can get you moving and strengthening your body, which is one of the most effective ways to manage your pain.

Regularly doing cardiovascular and strengthening exercises can improve your overall health, which will improve your spinal health and rib pain. Regular exercise has also been shown to reduce central sensitization and decrease the amount of pain that people experience. By making exercise a regular part of your routine, you can improve the resilience of your mid-back and help prevent disc herniation, as well as relieve discomfort and regain the ability to perform everyday tasks.

Improving your sleep

Getting good sleep can be tough when you have rib pain, but it's important for healing. Here are some tips to improve your sleep and overall health:

  • Try to stick to a regular sleep schedule.
  • Make your bedroom a restful place. Keep it dark and quiet.
  • Watch your caffeine intake, especially in the afternoon and evening.
  • Find time for relaxing activities outside of sleep. This can help you manage your symptoms and sleep better.

Stress management

While stress is an inevitable aspect of human experience, mastering its management can significantly mitigate its impact on your body. Developing proficiency in stress management techniques can diminish the likelihood of everyday stressors manifesting as physical pain.

There are effective strategies to reduce stress, such as engaging in cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) and practicing mindfulness, which can sharpen your cognitive processes, anchor you in the present, and foster relaxation. Additionally, it's beneficial to seek out social support, whether through conversations with friends, counseling sessions, or participation in support groups where you can express your emotions and receive encouragement.

Medication as an enabler

Nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs), like ibuprofen, are often used to relieve the pain and inflammation associated with pulled-back muscles. If the pain is very severe, your doctor may prescribe other medications, such as muscle relaxers or stronger pain medications.

While these medications can help manage pain, they are only part of the overall treatment plan and not a permanent solution. Long-term use of any medication can lead to issues, such as tolerance, where your body requires a higher dose to achieve the same pain relief. This is why it's important to use medications as part of a comprehensive treatment approach.

Surgical interventions

For individuals experiencing severe pain or neurological symptoms that do not respond to other treatments, procedures like discectomy and fusion may be considered.

  • Discectomy involves removing the herniated part of the disc to relieve pressure on the spinal nerves.
  • Fusion involves joining two or more vertebrae together to stabilize the spine.

These surgical interventions aim to relieve pressure on the spinal nerves and provide relief from the severe pain and other symptoms caused by a herniated disc.

More information

Whenever you experience persistent pain in the rib cage that interfere with daily activities, it might be helpful to seek professional medical assistance. Consulting a healthcare provider can help you receive the appropriate care and treatment.

At MoreGoodDays®, we've crafted a program grounded in scientific research to support you in dealing with chronic pain. Our approach helps dispel common myths about pain, focusing on understanding its root causes, identifying triggers, and learning to alter your body's reaction to pain using neuroplasticity principles.

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