What is Rib Flare? | Rib Flare: The Basics (Causes and Symptoms)

March 14, 2022

Lock this bit of information away for your next trivia night: most humans are born with 12 pairs of ribs! Unfortunately, some of us also struggle with a pesky condition called rib flare.

At ITR Physical Therapy in Bethesda MD and McLean VA, sometimes our postpartum patients come in with rib flares,, but this condition can affect men and women of all backgrounds. If you’ve ever wondered about what rib flare is, why it’s problematic, and whether you have it, this blog is for you.

Rib Flare: The Basics (Causes and Symptoms)

To understand what a rib flare is, it will be helpful  to understand the basic anatomy and function of the ribcage itself.

We’ve already learned that the typical person has 12 pairs of ribs. All ribs attach to the spine in the back of the body. The first seven pairs (1 through 7) are called “true ribs” and attach individually to the sternum (breastbone) on the front of the body. The next three pairs of ribs (8 through 10) are called “false ribs” and attach indirectly to the sternum via shared cartilage tissue. The final two pairs of ribs (11 through 12) are floating ribs and don’t attach to the breastbone at all. Together, these ribs form a cage in the upper trunk that protects important organs like the heart and lungs. The ribcage also helps with breathing and provides a supportive base upon which your shoulder blades can rest and move.

Under normal circumstances, the right and left sides of the ribcage will look fairly symmetrical. Rib flare happens when one side of the ribcage (usually the left) sticks out or flattens out relative to the other side. You can usually see this asymmetry when looking at a person from the front or side.

I mentioned that rib flare is common in pregnant and postpartum women. It’s not hard to imagine how a growing baby bump can change the alignment and position of your ribs! Rib flare can also develop due to other factors like poor posture, improper breathing mechanics, injury, genetics, and even stress.

Why is Rib Flare a Problem?

There are a few reasons why rib flare can be problematic, above and beyond any aesthetic issues one might have about it:

  • It can impair your breathing. During breathing, the left and right sides of the ribcage normally move up and down like bucket handles. Rib flare prevents this normal up/down motion and disrupts the alignment of your diaphragm and abdominal muscles (called the zone of apposition, or ZOA), which impedes normal inhalation and exhalation. And because your breath is so intricately connected to your nervous system, being unable to properly inhale and exhale can keep you stuck in the “fight or flight” stress mode. It can also throw off the coordination of your core muscles.
  • It can affect your spine. Your ribs, spine, shoulder blades, neck, pelvis…they’re all connected. Poor rib alignment due to rib flare can impair the stability and alignment in your spine and alter the normal position and movement of other joints, too, which may eventually lead to chronic tissue damage.
  • It can increase the risk of injury. Rib flare itself usually isn’t painful. But by throwing off your posture, it may elevate your risk of injury while lifting something or doing any other sort of physical activity.

How to Correct Rib Flare (With Help From Your Friendly McLean and Bethesda Physical Therapist)

It’s not always easy to change your rib cage alignment.Thankfully our McLean and Bethesda physical therapist team can help by:

  • Helping you become more aware of your body mechanics and postural habits
  • Providing gentle yet effective manual techniques to improve rib cage alignment and correct rib flare
  • Prescribing exercises that improve core strength and coordination
  • Teaching you specific breathing exercises to enhance the mechanics and function of your respiratory system
  • Addressing any other postural imbalances through movement training, manual therapy, neuromuscular re-education, and more

Worried About Rib Flare?

Discover how much better it feels to have good rib alignment! Contact ITR Physical Therapy today by calling 301-770-7060 to schedule an appointment with one of our physical therapists in McLean, VA or Bethesda, MD.

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