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What Is a Floating Rib?

Mary McMahon
Updated Mar 03, 2024
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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.

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.

How Long Before a Damaged Floating Rib Heals?

On their own, broken or damaged ribs take about six weeks to heal. The timeline is contingent upon a patient following a strict regimen of limited movement and reduced activities. If a patient with a broken floating rib participates in strenuous physical activities, the risk of further injury is high. 

In the worst cases, damaged ribs rip from the cartilage. Such injuries are much more extensive and take longer to heal completely. It usually takes at least 12 weeks before severely damaged ribs will heal. 

More minor injuries, such as a bruised rib, are treated the same way as a broken rib but won't take nearly as long to heal. A bruised floating rib should generally heal within three to six weeks, depending on the patient's activity. 

Patients suffering from slipped rib syndrome typically heal in about one to two weeks, depending on their treatment. A simple misalignment will take even less time to heal. 

Can Floating Rib Cause Other Pain?

It'sIt's not uncommon for patients with a floating rib or slipped rib syndrome to experience pain in other parts of the body. Chest and back pain, usually severe, are two of the most common radiating pains a patient might experience. 

Slipped, loose, or damaged ribs can pinch intercostal nerves, critical for sending sensory information from the somatic nervous system. The information received is essential for muscle contraction and much more. 

When these intercostal nerves are pinched, excruciating pain can develop in the chest and the back. The pain is rarely associated with internal damage to a patient's back or chest. But it can reach intense levels that are difficult to overcome without medical intervention. 

Other areas that could potentially be impacted by slipped rib syndrome include:

Another likely symptom of floating rib or slipped rib syndrome is extreme difficulty breathing. Deep breathing becomes nearly impossible, and simple activities like driving and stretching may cause severe pain. 

Sleeping with a Slipped Rib

Getting plenty of sleep when a body is healing is essential, but it's also easy to get hurt worse in the unconscious hours of the night. Sleeping with a broken or damaged bone is never easy to navigate. There are always extra precautions that patients need to take at night to ensure they don't aggravate further damage.

Sitting upright is the best way to sleep with an injured floating rib or slipped rib syndrome. If a patient has received treatment and their ribs are properly wrapped, the easiest way to sleep comfortably and without risk of further injury is upright. Usually, a recliner is the best place, as it helps the patient maintain a straight spine. 

Sleeping upright or propped up in bed is another way that patients can sleep more comfortably with a slipped rib. Patients will likely find sleeping in a slightly reclined position with support pillows under the back more comfortable than sleeping flat or on the side. 

Can a Chiropractor Fix Floating Rib Problems?

Chiropractors are fully capable of treating dislocated, subluxated, or otherwise injured ribs. If a patient has a floating rib that has slipped out of place, a chiropractor may be able to fix the problem by realigning the rib or popping it back into place. 

The relief from having a slipped rib returned to the correct position is immediate. If a patient suffers from a chronic problem of a floating rib slipping out of place, a chiropractor may be able to provide more long-term care that is less invasive or dependent on pain medication. For patients looking for a more natural remedy, chiropractors can help. 

Putting a Floating Rib Back in Place

A chiropractor can use specific techniques to get a slipped floating rib back into the proper place. It typically involves gentle, firm pressure that forces the rib back. The patient will likely have a wrap to stabilize the area after treatment and allow for complete healing. 

After treatment, a patient may receive a regimen of stretches and exercises that will help keep the rib from slipping again. 

Symptoms of a Slipped Floating Rib

There are a few common symptoms that indicate a floating rib has slipped out of place:

  • Severe pain in the chest, abdomen, and back
  • Radiating pain
  • Popping or clicking sound in the ribcage area
  • Pain from pressure to the area
  • Pain from basic movements

Patients who experience pain when laughing, turning, bending, or coughing could have a floating rib out of place. Pain associated with these movements is a standard indicator of a slipped rib.

The Health Board is dedicated to providing accurate and trustworthy information. We carefully select reputable sources and employ a rigorous fact-checking process to maintain the highest standards. To learn more about our commitment to accuracy, read our editorial process.
Mary McMahon
By Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a The Health Board researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

Discussion Comments

By anon1002863 — On Mar 05, 2020

My first rib floated and impinged my shoulder. I had a little bit of chest pain and where's-the-hydrocodone of shoulder pain. I couldn't raise my arm without screaming.

By anon997365 — On Dec 26, 2016

I too have this problem and have found relief. Please try this: lie on your back and pull your knees to your chest. Wrap your arms around your knees as tight as you can. Get slow momentum going by rocking in the same direction as your spine (hope this makes sense). You will probably feel or hear a slight pop. This is your rib popping back into place. You only need to rock a few times. It's best to try this on a carpeted floor. This works for me! Good luck.

By anon992993 — On Oct 16, 2015

Can the floating ribs be removed?

By anon333776 — On May 07, 2013

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

By anon311041 — On Dec 28, 2012

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.

By anon310440 — On Dec 22, 2012

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.

By anon310109 — On Dec 20, 2012

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?

By anon279711 — On Jul 13, 2012

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.

By anon256140 — On Mar 20, 2012

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.

By anon233066 — On Dec 04, 2011

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?

By anon229392 — On Nov 13, 2011

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.

By anon215444 — On Sep 18, 2011

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!

By anon145804 — On Jan 24, 2011

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.

By anon115238 — On Oct 01, 2010

@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.

By anon113056 — On Sep 22, 2010

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

By anon111241 — On Sep 15, 2010

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

By audichick — On Jul 13, 2010

@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.

By Spokane — On Jul 13, 2010

Do floating ribs break easier than the true ribs?

By anon71398 — On Mar 18, 2010

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.

Mary McMahon

Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a...

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