Here's a more compelling title without changing its meaning: "Uncovering the Causes of Sharp Chest and Rib Pain While Breathing"

Experiencing a sudden stabbing sensation in the chest or ribs while breathing in can be due to various reasons, including muscle strain or anxiety. However, it may also indicate severe conditions like injury, pleurisy, pneumonia, or pericarditis, requiring immediate medical attention.

While chest and rib pain can resolve on its own or with minimal intervention, it can sometimes be an emergency, and seeking urgent medical intervention is crucial.

In this article, we discuss seven possible triggers of sharp pain while inhaling and when it's necessary to seek prompt medical attention.

Share on PinterestImage credit: SimonSkafar/Getty ImagesPneumonia is a lung infection that causes inflammation of the air sacs leading to fluid or pus accumulation. It can be caused by bacterial, viral, or fungal infections, and the severity of the condition depends on the individual's age and overall health.

Person lies on back with pain when breathing in.

Chest pain during breathing is common in people with pneumonia. Other symptoms may include:

  • a cough, usually accompanied by coughing up sputum, greenish or rusty phlegm from the lungs, and high fever
  • chills, breathing difficulties, fatigue, sweating, and an accelerated heartbeat

The kind and severity of pneumonia will determine the treatment required. Antibiotics can be used to treat bacterial pneumonia, while high fluid intake, rest, and antiviral medications can help alleviate symptoms of viral pneumonia. Fungal types of pneumonia may require antifungal medication, and OTC medication can relieve the symptoms of pneumonia.

Learn more about pneumonia here.

Collapsed lung, medically called pneumothorax, is caused when air enters the pleural cavity, the space between the chest wall and the lungs. The accumulation of air increases the pressure in the pleural cavity, causing part of or the entire lung to collapse.

Pneumothorax can be a result of chest injury or underlying lung disease like tuberculosis.

People with pneumothorax may experience a sharp pain in the chest that exacerbates during breathing or coughing. The level of collapse determines the intensity of signs and symptoms of pneumothorax.

The following signs and symptoms may suggest pneumothorax:

  • difficulty breathing
  • sudden chest discomfort
  • tightness in the chest
  • palpitations
  • exhaustion
  • cyanosis, where the lips or skin turn blue

Treating pneumothorax involves inserting a chest tube or needle to remove excess air from the pleural cavity. For minor cases, the condition may resolve without this procedure.

More information on pneumothorax is available here.

The pleura, a tissue lining the chest cavity and covering the outside surface of the lungs, is inflamed in pleurisy. Viral or bacterial infection, with viral pleurisy being one of the most typical causes of pleurisy. People with pleurisy have a tendency to experience sharp pain, especially in the chest, when inhaling.

Symptoms of pleurisy include:

  • sharp chest pain that intensifies during breathing
  • pain that spreads to the back and shoulders
  • shortness of breath
  • coughing

The treatment for pleurisy will vary depending on the cause of the underlying condition. If bacterial infection is the culprit, doctors will prescribe antibiotics to manage the symptoms.

For the pain and swelling caused by pleurisy, doctors may suggest nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) such as ibuprofen.

More information on pleurisy is available here.

Costochondritis is an inflammation of the cartilage that connects the breastbone and ribs. The severity of chest discomfort caused by costochondritis can range from mild to severe.

People with costochondritis often experience chest pain that may radiate to the back.

While the exact cause of costochondritis remains unknown, the condition may result from chest injury, intense exercise, severe coughing, or joint infection.

Typically, costochondritis will heal on its own. However, a doctor may recommend NSAIDs to alleviate discomfort. Physical therapy, including stretching exercises and nerve stimulation, may also be beneficial, as well as heat treatment.

If other treatments fail, doctors may recommend injecting corticosteroids or numbing medication into the affected area.

More information on costochondritis is available here.

Chest injuries may result from a sports-related accident, surgical procedure, or fall from a high place. Approximately two-thirds of individuals experiencing physical trauma encounter chest injuries, ranging from rib fractures to heart injuries.

Chest trauma may result in sharp pain during inhalation. Additional symptoms of chest trauma may include:

  • shortness of breath
  • pain that spreads to the neck or back
  • blood coughing
  • contusions of the chest wall

Doctors will recommend the best course of treatment for chest trauma depending on the cause and severity. If an individual is gasping for breath, cardiopulmonary resuscitation (CPR) will likely be the initial approach. Individuals experiencing chest trauma must seek immediate medical attention.

More information on broken ribs is available here.

If you're experiencing severe stress or anxiety, it might cause anxiety attacks, which could result in sharp pain when you breathe in. Anxiety attacks usually occur due to an upcoming event that triggers fear or a belief that something undesirable might happen. One may encounter the following symptoms during an anxiety attack:

  • chest pain
  • heart palpitations
  • difficulty breathing
  • lightheadedness
  • sweating
  • a headache
  • Treatment methods for anxiety-related disorders include consulting a well-trained and qualified professional.

Click here to learn more about anxiety attacks.

Pericarditis is the inflammation of the pericardium, a sac-like tissue that surrounds the heart. The exact cause of pericarditis is still unclear, but viral infections are a common factor. Other contributing causes may include:

Pericarditis can cause sharp pain when you breathe in or a dull ache that eases when you sit or lean forward. The discomfort may also extend to your left shoulder and neck. Other symptoms of pericarditis can include:

  • fever
  • shortness of breath
  • lightheadedness
  • heart palpitations
  • abdomen and leg swelling
  • coughing

The best approach to deal with pericarditis depends on the cause and severity of the condition. If it is mild, it gets better by itself, while for severe cases, the doctor may prescribe over-the-counter pain relievers and corticosteroids to decrease the inflammation.

Click here to learn more about pericarditis.

Sharp pain when breathing in can be an indication of a life-threatening ailment, such as a heart attack. If you encounter unexplained acute pain when breathing in, particularly when it occurs alongside the following symptoms, you should address it with a doctor:

  • difficulty breathing
  • chest tightness or pain
  • severe shortness of breath
  • rapid breathing
  • air hunger
  • sudden dizziness
  • fever
  • excessive sweating

While acute pain when breathing in may not always be a cause for concern, in extreme cases, it could be an indication of a severe illness. Causes of this condition include chest injury and other medical conditions such as pneumonia.

It's crucial that anyone experiencing sharp pain when breathing in consults a physician, who will evaluate and diagnose the cause. Once they've confirmed the cause, the doctor can proceed with a treatment plan.

Last reviewed medically on December 22, 2020


How we reviewed this article:

The information provided in this article was sourced through peer-reviewed studies, academic research institutions, medical journals, and associations. We only used primary sources, such as scientific references, studies, and statistics. Our editorial policy ensures that our content is current and accurate. Read our editorial policy to find out more.

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