Why Does My Rib Cage Pop When Stretching?

If you’re hearing a snapping or popping sound when you stretch your rib cage, it is most likely coming from your sternum, or breast bone. Your first seven ribs are connected to your sternum and held in place by ligaments and cushioned by cartilage, all of which move together when you stretch. According to Drs. Michael Roizen and Mehmet Oz on Cleveland.com, it is usually quite difficult to identify the exact cause of popping joints, also known as crepitus, but a number of possible causes exist, most of which are not serious and generally don’t require treatment.

A young woman is stretching outside. (Image: XiXinXing/XiXinXing/Getty Images)

Normal Movement of Connective Tissue

Your ligaments connect to your rib bones and control the range of movement within your joints. If these connective tissues become tight -- for example, through weight-lifting exercises such as the bench press -- they will move less smoothly over the bones in your joints, according to West Coast Family Chiropractic. As a result, they might grate or snap over your rib joints when you stretch, making a popping noise as they move into the new position.

Injury and Subluxation

An injury to your chest can place additional pressure on the muscles in your chest and your rib joints. It can also damage your ligaments and tendons, which may cause subluxation in the joints. This occurs when the connective tissues are unable to adequately support your rib joints through their normal range of movement during a stretch, according to the website eOrthopod. Instead, the injured ligaments or tendons snap out of position and can make a popping sound as they do so.

Synovial Gas

The joints in your rib cage are cushioned by cartilage, which is covered in a membrane of synovial fluid. This substance helps the bones move smoothly within the joint, and is made up of a number or of different gases. When you stretch your ribs and chest beyond their normal range of movement, the joint expands and the pressure changes within the fluid, according to West Coast Family Chiropractic. This causes bubbles to form and, when they burst, you might hear a popping sound.

Cartilage Inflammation

Two conditions can cause cartilage inflammation in your ribs: costochondritis and Tietze’s syndrome. Both are brought on by repeated physical strain, such as persistent coughing or vomiting. However, costochondritis can also result from a chest infection, including after chest or heart surgery. Cartilage inflammation can mean your rib joints move less freely and the bones may grate or snap over the affected cartilage as you move or stretch. If you believe either of these conditions are the cause of your ribs popping, you should see a doctor immediately.

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