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  • How to know when you have a locked up RIB...

When a patient feels pain between the shoulder blades or in the upper back, it is almost always locked up thoracic spine and/ or rib joints.  When the rib joints get locked up it can even hurt to take a deep breath.  Pain will also increase when the patient bends the head down, or reaches across their chest using the hand on the most painful side.

If the rib joints are kinked long enough, it can extend  pain in the front of the chest near the sternum.  I have had many patients who have even feared they were having a heart attack because they have chest pain and difficulty breathing.  Once a patient has had a rib problem they can tell the difference between this and a heart attack.

picture of ribs from a skeleton
Each rib has three joints, two that attach to your spine, and one to your sternum.
picture of a single rib attached to a vertebrae. The picture to the left shows a rib and the two joints that attach at the spine.  These rib joints can get stuck just like other joints in the spine.  Chiropractic adjustments work exceptionally well to loosen the kinked rib and get rid of the pain.  Often the pain relief is immediate.  I doubt there is any treatment on the planet as effective as chiropractic for treating rib dysfunction.  Thank heavens, because I have had this problem myself and it is quite hard to put up with.
Why it often hurts to take a deep breath when the ribs are locked up.
The pictures to the right show the movements that each rib makes when we take a breath.  The ribs move like a bucket handle, and a pump handle.  When these two movements occur, the rib cage "expands" allowing air to flow into the lungs.  When the rib joint is stuck, it won't allow these movements and it causes pain between the shoulders/ near or under the shoulder blade/ the upper back and often in the chest near the sternum each time we take a breath.
What causes the ribs and vertebrae in the upper back to get locked up in the first place?

Typically ribs and thoracic spine get stuck due to postural strain.

  • Sitting at the computer with the keyboard or mouse too high.
  • Slouching in a chair because the chair has poor lumbar support. 
  • Working over head for long hours, and looking up.
  • Watching t.v. while laying on your stomach with your chin in your hands.
  • Poor sleeping postions, and sleeping on the couch.
Traumatic injuries can also kink the thoracic spine and ribs.
  • Falling and landing on your back, jarring your spine between the shoulder blades.
  • Whiplash, especially from a car wreck.
  • Lifting something very heavy with the arms hung down at your waist, such as heaving a snowmobile out of the snow, or carrying heavy buckets.
  • Performing a shoulder shrug with too heavy of weights.
picture showing how the ribs move, buckethandle, pumphandle etc.

There is almost always muscles of the upper back that develop trigger points (knots) in them that aggrevate and cause pain along with the stuck thoracic spine and stuck ribs.

The Romboid muscles (the red one on the right) or the trapezious are common muscles involved.

At Ellis chiropractic we use Active Release Technique, trigger point therapy and kinesiotape to treat the muscle involvment.  These muscle techniques combined with chiropractic adjustments are very effective treatments.

picture of the muscles of the back, highlighting the romboids.