What does it mean when you hear a pop in your ribs?

Hearing a popping sound in your ribs can be concerning, but in most cases it is not a cause for alarm. The popping sensation is usually caused by joints and ligaments moving in the rib cage or air bubbles popping in the fluid that surrounds the lungs and ribs.

Quick Answers

Here are some quick answers to common questions about popping ribs:

  • The popping sound usually comes from joints and ligaments moving in the rib cage. It is often harmless.
  • Air bubbles popping in the pleural fluid between the lungs and ribs can also cause a popping sensation.
  • As long as the popping is not accompanied by pain, swelling or difficulty breathing, it is typically not a medical concern.
  • Injury, muscle strains, fractures, arthritis and separation of the rib joints can sometimes cause painful popping.
  • Popping that occurs repeatedly in the same area when moving may indicate an injury or inflammation that needs medical attention.
  • Talk to your doctor if the popping is recurrent, localized and accompanied by other symptoms like pain, swelling or changes in breathing.

What Causes the Popping Sensation in Ribs?

There are a few common causes of that clicking or popping feeling in the ribs:

  • Moving joints – The ribs are attached to the spine in the back by facet joints. The cartilage at the ends of the ribs is also connected to the breastbone (sternum) in the front. As these joints move during breathing, twisting or changing positions, they can create an audible popping sound.
  • Bursting air bubbles – The lungs are surrounded by a thin fluid between the pleura (membranes) of the lungs and rib cage. When small air bubbles in this pleural fluid burst, it can create a pop.
  • Muscle and ligament movement – The intercostal muscles between the ribs and costal ligaments connecting the ribs can snap or thump as they move, contributing to popping.
  • Injury or inflammation – Damage, strain or inflammation in the cartilage, joints or ligaments of the rib cage may make popping sounds during movement as roughened surfaces rub together.

Benign Causes of Popping Ribs

In most cases, popping or cracking ribs are benign. Loud pops can happen occasionally in healthy individuals with no associated problems or symptoms. Here are some common reasons your ribs may pop harmlessly:

  • Stretching and moving after sitting or lying for a while
  • Twisting the torso when stretching, exercising or reaching
  • Breathing deeply or coughing
  • Adjusting posture or rolling over in bed
  • Minor muscle pulls or normal joint movements

These routine rib pops are similar to knuckle cracking and are not usually indicative of an underlying medical issue. They may startle you when they happen unexpectedly but are typically not dangerous.

When to Worry About Rib Popping

While occasional, painless rib cracking is normal, there are some circumstances when popping ribs should be evaluated by a doctor. Seek medical advice if the popping:

  • Happens together with chest pain, soreness or swelling
  • Causes difficulty or pain when breathing
  • Occurs repeatedly when you move in a certain way
  • Is accompanied by an audible grinding or grating noise
  • Is confined to a specific localized area of the rib cage
  • Is associated with a recent injury like a blow to the chest or heavy lifting

Persistent or worsening symptoms may signal a more serious issue like a chest injury, respiratory disorder or joint inflammation. Some potential causes of problematic rib popping include:

Potential Causes of Painful or Problematic Rib Popping

  • Fracture – Broken ribs produce popping and grinding as the ends move against each other abnormally. Fractures cause severe pain and difficulty breathing.
  • Torn cartilage – Damage to the cartilage connections between ribs and breastbone can lead to inflammation and popping when moving.
  • Rib subluxation – Partial rib dislocation due to injury or repeated strain makes an audible snapping sound when moving.
  • Osteoarthritis – Eroded joint surfaces in the spine and rib cage cause popping, creaking, and pain when breathing or turning.
  • Costochondritis – Inflammation of cartilage that connects ribs to breastbone causes localized chest pain and popping.
  • Pleural rub – Pleurisy, an inflammation of lung lining, produces a grating sound when breathing as inflamed membranes rub together.

See a doctor promptly if your popping ribs are limited to a specific area, are accompanied by worsening pain, or impede your ability to move or breathe comfortably. Prompt diagnosis and treatment is needed for a suspected fracture, joint injury or lung-related issue.

Diagnosing Problematic Rib Popping

To determine the cause of severe, recurring or worrisome rib popping, the doctor will begin with a physical exam of your chest. They may:

  • Palpate the ribs to check for tenderness, swelling, warmth or deformities
  • Listen to the lungs with a stethoscope for abnormal sounds when breathing
  • Have you breathe deeply, twist and move to reproduce the popping
  • Assess range of motion and pain with movement

Depending on findings from the physical exam, your doctor may order imaging tests like:

  • X-ray – Pictures can reveal broken bones, separated joints, or injured cartilage.
  • CT scan – Provides more detailed images to assess fractures, dislocations, arthritis and lung abnormalities.
  • MRI – Uses radio waves and magnets to produce in-depth images of soft tissues like inflamed cartilage or pleura.

Blood tests may also be ordered to check for underlying infection or inflammation. Your doctor will review the results and determine if you have an injury, respiratory disorder or joint condition requiring treatment.

Is Popping Ribs Serious?

For the most part, hearing an occasional click, snap or pop in the ribs is not serious. The chest cavity is designed to allow flexible movement for breathing, which can create some noises that are usually harmless.

However, a popping sensation consistently localized to one area, accompanied by swelling, pain, or other symptoms should be evaluated. This may indicate:

  • A rib fracture or dislocation
  • Injured cartilage or inflamed joints
  • Pleural rub from inflamed lung linings
  • An underlying respiratory infection

Any condition impeding breathing capacity or causing worsening chest pain merits prompt medical attention. Seeking timely treatment for traumatic rib injuries, degenerative joint changes or lung inflammation can prevent complications.

When to See a Doctor

Visit your doctor promptly if popping ribs are accompanied by:

  • Local pain, tenderness or swelling
  • Sharp pain when breathing deeply
  • Grinding, crunching or friction sounds
  • Inability to take a deep breath
  • Persistent cough or difficulty breathing
  • Fever, chills or excessive sweating

Seeking medical care quickly for these red flag symptoms allows proper diagnosis and treatment to begin right away. This gives you the best chance of overcoming more serious rib injuries or inflammatory conditions.

Treatment for Painful Rib Popping

Treatment for recurring, localized rib popping depends on the underlying cause. Options may include:

  • Pain relievers – Over-the-counter anti-inflammatories like ibuprofen can help reduce swelling and discomfort.
  • Rest – Avoiding strenuous activity allows injured bones and tissues to heal.
  • Ice packs – Applying ice to tender areas decreases inflammation.
  • Physical therapy – Stretching and strengthening exercises can improve mobility and function.
  • Steroid injections – Cortisone shots reduce inflammation in severely damaged joints.
  • Surgery – Severe fractures or displaced joints may need operative repair.

Your doctor will recommend the appropriate treatment plan based on the origin of your rib popping and pain. With proper care, you can usually find relief from the recurring discomfort.

Preventing Rib Popping and Injuries

You can reduce your chances of damaging ribs and joints through preventive measures like:

  • Maintaining good posture during sitting and standing
  • Stretching the chest muscles before physical activity
  • Exercising to build torso strength and flexibility
  • Using proper lifting form – bend knees, keep back straight
  • Catching coughs or sneezes with arm instead of chest
  • Wearing protective gear for contact sports
  • Treating respiratory infections promptly to avoid prolonged coughing

Building strength in back and core muscles provides added support to the rib cage area. Make sure to rest and ease back into exercise if you injure chest or ribs. Proper prevention helps avoid damage that could lead to chronic popping and pain.

When to See a Doctor for Rib Popping

Occasional clicking or cracking when you move or stretch is usually not concerning. However, see a doctor right away if you experience:

  • Sharp, stabbing pain when breathing in or out
  • Inability to take deep breaths or chronic cough
  • A popping feeling with each breath you inhale
  • Extreme tenderness over one area of ribs
  • Swelling over the rib cage
  • Popping that follows trauma like a fall or blow to the chest

Severe or worsening symptoms warrant prompt medical evaluation to determine if injured ribs, lung inflammation or joint changes are present. Early treatment is key to overcoming more serious medical problems.

See a Doctor Within 1-2 Days for:

  • Popping localized to one rib area
  • Discomfort when twisting or reaching
  • Mild difficulty taking deep breaths
  • Low grade tenderness over the ribs
  • Persistent popping that interferes with sleep

Schedule a doctor visit within a day or two if painful popping ribs disrupt your daily activities. Diagnosing and addressing any minor injuries or inflammation early on can prevent complications.


Hearing your ribs pop or crack is seldom a major health issue if it occurs occasionally with no pain. The chest is designed to be mobile for breathing. Simple joint movements or bursting air bubbles between ribs often create harmless popping sounds.

However, recurring pops localized to one rib area and accompanied by breathing problems, swelling or worsening pain may be signs of an underlying injury or inflammatory condition needing medical treatment. Do not ignore red flag symptoms. See a doctor promptly if your rib popping is severe, persistent or impairs your breathing.

With proper preventive care, rest and prompt treatment if injuries occur, you can usually avoid major complications from rib popping. Have your doctor assess any rib symptoms that worry you or impact your normal functioning.

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