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What Is a Floating Rib?

A picture of a ribcage, with floating ribs at the bottom.
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  • Written By: Mary McMahon
  • Edited By: O. Wallace
  • Last Modified Date: 28 October 2014
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The term “floating rib” is used to refer to a specific anatomical structure and to a disorder which could better be termed a “slipped rib.” Both, as one might imagine from the name, involve the ribs, curved bones found in vertebrates. The ribs are attached to the spine and a structure called the sternum, creating the rib cage, a protective casing for vital organs such as the heart and lungs.

In the case of an anatomical structure, a floating rib is a rib which is attached to the spine, but not the sternum. Most people have floating ribs, with the 11th and 12th pairs of ribs being floating ribs. In some people, there are three pairs instead of two, and other individuals only develop one set of floating ribs. Floating ribs are entirely normal and nothing to be concerned about, and although they are not attached to the sternum, they aren't exactly floating around in the body cavity; numerous attachments usually keep the floating ribs more or less in place.

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The function of the floating ribs is not fully understood. A floating rib could theoretically provide some protection to the contents of the abdominal cavity, but it isn't as necessary as the ribs which are attached to the sternum. The “false ribs,” as they are known, may be vestigial leavings of an earlier stage in human evolution. Evidence suggests that people have also been able to train their floating ribs into new positions, as seen in women who wear corsets for a prolonged period of time.

In some cases, a floating rib can cause problems for its owner. These ribs can slip out of position, putting pressure on internal organs, and they can also be broken as a result of trauma, causing considerable pain and putting the patient at risk for infection.

The disorder sometimes referred to as floating rib syndrome and better known as slipped rib syndrome occurs when a rib becomes dislocated, slipping out of its socket. Patients tend to experience considerable pain with this condition, which is usually a result of trauma, and it can be readily identified with a physical examination or medical imaging study of the area of interest. As with other rib injuries, the best treatment is usually partial immobilization, achieved by wrapping the ribcage tightly so that the rib cannot drift while it heals, but not so tightly that it cannot expand as the patient breathes.

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anon333776
Post 17

Is there any surgical procedure for this? I have to physically put mine back in by rubbing a in a circular motion.

anon311041
Post 16

Lucky are the people who have had trouble with their false ribs and get any suggestion at all from their doctor(s).

Mine started on the right when, by accident, I brushed against the lower ribs and it/they made a loud popping sound. This didn't seem good, and I worried/worry that organs could be affected. But I was told it just a floating rib(s). I am so calm now.

anon310440
Post 15

I have three slipped ribs. This is usually a chronic thing. Not what anyone wants to hear. I can tell you what gives me relief. Rolling a tennis ball between my back and the wall will help pop it in, if even for a day. Also a posture back support brace has been a godsend. Be careful with chiropractors. A chiropractor did this to me. He meant no ill will or malice; it just happened during a treatment.

anon310109
Post 14

I was told I have this and was told there was nothing I could do but take panadol and use a heat pack, but using the heat pack ends up making me vomit, and panadol does nothing for the pain. Can anyone please tell me something that will help?

anon279711
Post 13

I too have had a slipped rib. Mine actually caused such severe damage to my nerves that I have constant pain and nausea. I had a neurostimulator implanted which masks the pain.

Before this I found that chiropractics help, if you go to someone who is much more physical, not a come back three times a week forever, but the kind that makes your body make very loud pops (or makes it seem like your head is going to pop off.)

The easiest thing to do, and that helps the most, is to stretch out the side. Bend and stretch out the side as far as you can bend, and stay that way for as long as you can -- 40 minutes is good. It hurts but stretching out the area helps so much you are going to want to stay stretched all the time.

For over the counter drugs, I recommend Naproxen (Aleve) because it has muscle relaxing properties and though it is tough on the stomach you can take two (prescription strength.) Good luck to you all, and remember: the better you care for your back the less often this should happen.

Oh, and ice is your friend. If you use ice cubes, you can leave it on for hours without a problem. And ice several times a day for days even after it feels better, it'll help stop it from happening again right away. Remember it is a bruised area.

anon256140
Post 12

Pain in my lower right rib cage and piercing through to the back landed me at PCP in 11/11. To make a long story short, I had an ultrasound, upper GI, Hida scan and endoscopy before being diagnosed with Floating Rib Syndrome by a gastro doctor in 03/12.

I am not sure how this happened, but was told by the doctor that reducing my weight could help with my pain. I am thankful for the diagnosis as I was beginning to feel a little mental and maybe no one believed me. My pain is almost always there. No meds were prescribed. He did indicate that sometimes the ribs can be injected in extreme cases.

anon233066
Post 11

I have had this severe pain directly under my left rib cage for the past four weeks. I spent last Sunday in the ER thinking I had some kind of intestinal blockage. I had X-rays, CT scan, the whole ball of wax, only to be sent home with painkillers and no answers other than there was no obvious signs of disease or trauma to my spleen, pancreas, etc.

It was my niece who told me about her slipped rib, or I'd still be wondering what the heck was going on. It's exceedingly painful, with burning pain radiating to my back, and me feeling like my whole left side was being "crushed" (as I explained to the ER doctor). Could this be a slipped rib?

anon229392
Post 10

Rib pain is really bad, it makes people totally handicapped. You can't sleep properly, you can't walk properly and even daily activities are very hard to achieve. I wish no one had to go through this.

anon215444
Post 9

Can floating rib syndrome cause a sharp burning, stinging pain in my back? Oh hell yes! I didn't know what was wrong at first; I thought I had torn a muscle or busted my spleen because the pain was so intense. I could not even sleep. The pain felt like some organ below my left rib cage was swollen, constantly throbbing, and was aggravated by bending forward or leaning to the right. Additionally, the pain seem to spread over time an radiate from my left lower back. At the time, I didn't know what was going on!

The worst part was that it got progressively worse for the first seven days, and slowly better over the last three days (10 days of this madness in all). Anyway, I went to the doctor, he prescribed some muscle relaxer, which didn't do a damn thing, so I kept taking Ibuprofen and Acetaminophen for the pain and after seven days, it finally started to get better.

I really hope this helps someone because I was seriously stressing out.

By the way, I found out that I have a 13th rib!

anon145804
Post 8

I would like to state that a floating rib is not just the 3 at the bottom. I have had this condition twice and both times the doctor had to pop the rib back into place which is painful but allows it to heal faster.

anon115238
Post 6

@anon71398: Of course you've had a floating rib more years than you can count, everybody has them. They are part of our skeleton.

The term "floating" only refers to the ones that aren't attached to the sternum, which are the last two or three. My right 13th rib, which is a floating rib developed inflammation at the tip since it is so low in my body and I always sit at work. After freaking out about it because I thought it was a tumor or something, I went to ER, where the Doc gave me 800 mg ibuprofen. Swelling went down, pain went away. He also advised me to change chair positions and heights throughout the day so the tip of the rib isn't always in the same position.

anon113056
Post 5

can floating rib syndrome cause a sharp burning, stinging pain in my back?

anon111241
Post 4

The wrapping the ribcage for traumatic injury is an outdated medical procedure. It is not done anymore.

audichick
Post 3

@Spokane- Yes, because floating ribs are not attached to the sternum, they are more susceptible to breaks. They are also made of more cartilage than bone, which makes them easier to break than the true ribs, which are connected to the sternum.

Spokane
Post 2

Do floating ribs break easier than the true ribs?

anon71398
Post 1

I have had a floating rib for more years than I can count,I thought it was a fragment of my imagination,now I know that's it not. It is a bit painful when it "slips" but the pain soon goes.

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