Women can often experience a wide range of uncomfortable symptoms during pregnancy. One common complaint is rib pain, which has several possible causes that vary by trimester.
In most cases, the cause of rib pain is harmless. The growing fetus often causes aches and pains around the ribs due to their position in the womb. Less commonly, medical complications can cause rib pain, so it is important to know the warning signs.
In this article, we look at what can cause rib pain in pregnancy, how to relieve the pain, and when to see a doctor.
Causes and trimesters
Pressure from the growing fetus
In the late second trimester and third trimester, the uterus expands upward to accommodate the developing fetus. As the fetus gets larger and larger, they may start to press against the ribs.
Carrying the extra weight of the fetus can also place more strain on the muscles around the abdomen, which can, in turn, put pressure on the rib muscles, causing muscle aches.
This pain is usually mild to moderate. If the pain is severe, it is best to see a doctor.
The position of the fetus
Usually, close to the end of the second trimester, the fetus changes position and turns upside down so that the head is facing down and the feet are pointing toward the ribs.
In this new position, the fetus can put pressure on the ribs. Their movements also begin to affect the woman’s body. Their arm and leg movements, especially kicks, can cause aches and pains in the ribs and elsewhere.
Round ligament pain
Round ligament pain is a common pregnancy complaint. The round ligaments are a pair of fibrous tissue cords that connect the front of the uterus to the groin. As the uterus grows during pregnancy, it can put pressure on the round ligaments, and this can cause sharp pain when moving.
Round ligament pain can occur anytime from around the start of the second trimester onward. Women may feel pain around the ribs, back, or pelvis.
Pregnant women have a higher risk than other people of developing gallstones because of rising estrogen levels and difficulty emptying the gallbladder.
According to one study, approximately 12% of pregnant women will develop gallstones.
Gallstones may or may not cause symptoms. When they do, people typically experience pain in the upper right abdomen.
Gallstones can occur anytime during pregnancy. Some women may need surgery to remove them following their pregnancy.
Urinary tract infection
Women have a higher risk of developing a urinary tract infection (UTI) when they are pregnant, especially during the third trimester.
Pregnancy can change the bacteria in the urinary tract, and women may have more difficulty emptying the bladder if the fetus places pressure on it. Both of these factors increase the risk of UTIs.
Without treatment, a UTI can cause pain in the kidneys, which can feel like rib pain.
A person should see a doctor if they have the following symptoms, as they may have a UTI:
- burning sensation during urination
- increased frequency of urination
- poor urine flow
- fever or chills
- pain in the bladder or near the kidneys
During pregnancy, the body produces a hormone called relaxin. This natural hormone is responsible for helping the muscles and ligaments prepare for the birth.
Relaxin can cause pain in different areas of the body, including around the pelvis and under the ribs. This pain can sometimes be due to heartburn. Relaxin causes heartburn because it relaxes the esophagus, the tube that carries food from the mouth to the stomach, allowing stomach acid to rise further than usual.
Heartburn can start as early as the first trimester and may last throughout the pregnancy.
Constipation causes abdominal pain and infrequent or delayed bowel movements that can be hard when they occur. Sometimes, a pregnant woman may feel constipation-related pain in the upper abdomen, under the ribs.
Preeclampsia and HELLP syndrome, which doctors consider to be a variant of preeclampsia, are two complications that can occur during pregnancy and cause pain under the ribs.
The upper right quadrant pain that preeclampsia and HELLP syndrome can cause is liver pain. People experience liver pain in many different ways. Some experience it as shoulder pain, while others feel pain near the bra line, or have serious heartburn that does not respond to antacids.
Both preeclampsia and HELLP syndrome occur in the later second trimester and third trimester.
Signs and symptoms include:
- protein in the urine
- high blood pressure
- headaches that do not respond to medication
- return of nausea
- severe heartburn
- difficulty urinating
- swelling in the hands and face
- sudden weight gain
- visual disturbances, including seeing spots called eye floaters
- pain in the upper right quadrant of the abdomen
Preeclampsia and HELLP syndrome are dangerous pregnancy complications that can be life-threatening for both the woman and baby. These issues need prompt medical attention.
Preventing rib pain during pregnancy
If a baby’s foot stuck in your body parts is causing your rib pain, you may be out of luck. But you might be able to prevent some degree of rib pain by staying active and exercising during pregnancy. Both of these will help you stay comfortable and prevent excess weight gain. This can contribute to the pain.
To help prevent the formation of the gallstones, focus on eating a healthy diet. Eating a high-fat diet can lead to gallstones.
Remedies for rib pain
If you’re experiencing rib pain, try the following remedies to help ease your discomfort.
Visit a chiropractor
An adjustment can help make sure your skeletal system is in the correct position, especially as the stress of pregnancy shifts your body. An adjustment may also help your baby settle into a lower position, taking some pressure off of your ribs.
Use an exercise ball
Those oversized exercise balls are lifesavers during pregnancy, especially for rib pain. Drape yourself on your back on the ball and do a few roll-outs.
It may seem like the last thing you want to do, but doing gentle exercise, such as yoga with lots of stretching, will help keep your muscles loose. It will also help keep both you and the baby as healthy as possible.