What Is a Popped Rib?

Medically Reviewed by Minesh Khatri, MD on May 28, 2023
3 min read

A popped rib is a musculoskeletal condition that occurs when one or more of your false ribs shifts out of their usual position. It's also called the slipping rib or Cyriax syndrome. This syndrome often goes underdiagnosed and may cause other problems that make it very challenging to maintain physical activity. 

Your rib cage consists of 12 paired bones. The first seven pairs are called “true ribs” and are attached directly to the sternum. The 8th, 9th, and 10th pairs don't attach directly to your sternum but connect indirectly by cartilage. That's why they are known as “false ribs.” The lower 11th and 12th pairs are usually referred to as “floating ribs.”.

Because your 8th, 9th, and 10th ribs aren’t directly connected to your sternum, they are prone to excess movement. It's this hypermobility that exposes your false ribs to the likelihood of slipping. A popped rib is a more common injury among athletes who engage in contact sports than in other people. 

A popped rib happens when the cartilage attached to any of your “false ribs” breaks, resulting in abnormal movement. It's this slipping out of normal position that causes pain that's felt in your upper abdomen or lower chest.

In most cases, a popped rib is caused by injury or trauma. However, there can be times when it just happens without explanation. For some people, there's a likelihood of inheriting the condition. Doctors also think the condition may arise from chest problems such as bronchitis, asthma, or a serious, persistent cough.

If you have slipping rib syndrome, you may experience the following signs and symptoms:

  • Clicking, popping, or slipping sensation in your lower ribs
  • Sharp pain either in the back or upper abdomen that comes and goes and is followed by a dull ache
  • Symptoms worsening with some activities, such as bending, lifting, turning in bed, or twisting even a little
  • Feeling a tender spot and specific pain when you touch the affected rib 
  • Coughing or difficulty breathing

In most cases, it happens only on one side of your ribcage but can occur on both sides on rare occasions. The pain that's associated with this condition comes from irritated nerves and muscles caused by abnormal rib movement.

The discomfort and pain of slipping rib syndrome can make it difficult to live normally. Activities like coughing, bending, lifting, deep breathing, turning in bed, reaching for something, sitting up from a chair, and stretching will often worsen your symptoms. 

It's important to get treated for a popped rib, as it may go a long way in preventing back and abdominal pain. If you engage in sports, work closely with your doctor as you prepare to resume typical physical activity. 

Your doctor will ask how long you’ve experienced the symptoms, and what makes them worse or better. 

The most reliable test is called a “hooking maneuver,” which involves your doctor gently moving the affected rib. They will check for a clicking sound and pain, the presence of which confirms a misaligned rib. Although this test will be enough to confirm the condition, your doctor may need to perform an ultrasound to rule out any other abnormalities or diseases.

After confirming that you have a popped rib, your doctor will advise on any activities you should avoid. They'll also provide the most appropriate way for you to continue with daily life without hurting yourself more. 

Your doctor may prescribe any of these:

  • Nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs
  • Physical therapy
  • Intercostal nerve injections, to ease pain and inflammation 
  • Osteopathic manipulative treatment
  • Surgery
  • Rest
  • Cold and heat therapy

Cyriax syndrome is an underdiagnosed condition that’s often mistaken for other conditions. It could be the cause behind some people’s upper and middle back pain and pain in the chest wall. Talk to your doctor about such pain and related symptoms.