Common possible causes of pain around the sternum and ribs after eating are:
- heart issues
- infections in the digestive tract
- acid reflux or GERD
Less common causes are problems with the kidney or spleen, and inflammatory bowel disease (IBD).
Since the rib cage protects a lot of vital organs, you should talk to your doctor if you are experiencing rib pain after eating.
In case the pain is sharp, there is blood in your vomit or stool (dark stool), you should contact a doctor right away!
The exact location of the pain and the accompanying symptoms will help your doctor diagnose the possible cause.
Pain under sternum after eating
Eating-related pain around the center of the chest, under the sternum, might indicate cardiac issues, acid reflux, ulcers, or esophageal problems.
These are the other common symptoms of heart-related sternum pain:
- shortness of breath
- pain radiates into the left arm or shoulder, sometimes to the neck and jaw
- nausea, dizziness
- cold sweat
Experiencing these symptoms could indicate a serious condition that might require emergency medical help!
During an acid reflux episode stomach acids can flow back up into the esophagus and irritate the lining of the food pipe, causing a burning sensation around the middle of the chest, under the breastbone. (This is called heartburn.)
Acid reflux is very common, according to the National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases (NIDDK) regular acid reflux attacks (called GERD, or gastroesophageal reflux disease) affect about 20% of US people.
Typical other symptoms are:
- sour taste in the mouth
- bad breath
- swallowing difficulties
Rib pain triggered by acid reflux usually gets worse when lying down.
However, heartburn – pain around the sternum – is also a common symptom.
Other symptoms are:
- bloating, belching
- feeling fullness
Severe symptoms, that require immediate medical help, are vomiting blood or dark stool. (These indicate a perforated, bleeding ulcer.)
Any health problems in the esophagus can trigger pain below or behind the sternum.
These are the most common issues with the food pipe that can cause pain under the breastbone:
- Esophagitis: inflammation of the esophagus.
- Barrett’s esophagus: long term exposure to stomach acids (untreated GERD) might change the structure of the cells on the lining of the esophagus.
- Esophageal cancer: occasionally Barrett’s esophagus can progress into esophageal cancer. Albeit not common, this is a serious condition.
- Esophageal ulcer: another health issue that is caused by long-term exposure to stomach acids or infection.
- Esophageal spasms: irregular and uncoordinated contractions of the esophagus are often caused by drinking too hot or too cold drinks.
Left rib pain after meals
Left side chest and rib pain after heavy meals are often associated with heart-related problems. While this is a possibility, there are other possible causes that could trigger eating-related pain on the left side of the rib cage:
The inflammation of the pancreas tends to cause pain on the left side of the body.
When eating food, the pancreas secretes digestive enzymes into the small intestine to help digestion.
The spleen is also located on the left part of the abdomen, right behind the stomach.
Infections, liver diseases, blood disorders can cause an enlarged spleen, also called splenomegaly.
People with an enlarged spleen often feel full even after eating small amounts of food. When eating too much, the spleen might push against the stomach, causing pain in the left rib cage.
Even though an enlarged spleen usually doesn’t cause any problems, possible symptoms might be:
- low red blood cells (anemia)
- fullness or bloating
- loss of appetite, weight loss
- recurring infections
- bleeding easily
Pain might radiate into the left part of the stomach and the left shoulder.
Pain under right rib
Pain under the right rib cage is most often caused by gallbladder problems.
Gallstones and gallbladder disease
According to this study, more than 20 million people have gallbladder disease in the US. This is a quite common condition and its most typical symptom is right side pain.
Since the gallbladder helps in the digestion of fat, this pain is usually triggered after eating fatty food.
The pain usually occurs around the upper right abdomen, just under the right ribs, however, it can radiate into the entire right part of the body. Right shoulder pain after eating fatty food is a typical sign of gallbladder problems.
Other possible symptoms are:
- sudden and intense pain in the right part of the body
- right shoulder pain, pain between the shoulder blades
High fever or yellowing of your skin indicates a serious gallbladder problem that requires immediate medical attention!
Now let’s see what foods are most likely to trigger rib pain after eating:
Ribs hurt after eating fatty food
Fat is very hard to digest, too much greasy food makes your digestive system work overtime.
This might trigger all kinds of health issues:
- Heart problems: people with existing heart conditions are especially at risk. Cardiac pain caused by fatty foods usually triggers left rib pain or pain under the breastbone.
- Acid reflux: fatty foods stay longer in the stomach than other foods (e.g. vegetables) and the stomach secretes more stomach acid. This makes acid reflux more likely for people who are prone to reflux.
- Gallbladder: right side rib pain after eating fatty food is often caused by gallbladder disease or gallstones.
Rib pain and sugar
- Cardiac problems: just like fat, sugar can also cause heart disease.
- Acid reflux: yet another health condition that is associated with both fat and sugar intake. The digestion of sugar might produce gas, which increases the pressure in the stomach and makes the reflux of stomach acids more likely.
- Costochondritis: costochondritis is the inflammation of the cartilage where the ribs connect to the sternum. Several studies have shown that sugar has inflammatory effects and people with costochondritis are advised to stay away from sugar. The most common symptom of this condition is pain around the sternum or left ribs.
- Pancreatitis: because of its inflammatory effects, sugar may also worsen the condition of people with pancreatitis.
Rib pain after drinking
Consuming various beverages can also trigger rib pain.
These are the drinks that often cause pain around the ribs:
Soda can trigger rib pain in several ways:
- it is full of sugar, which might worsen symptoms of certain inflammatory diseases
- it might be carbonated, which can trigger acid reflux or irritate ulcers
- it might be very cold, which can cause esophageal spasms
Coffee and caffeine are known to cause acid reflux, which is a likely cause of rib pain after drinking coffee.
However, adding sugar and milk (cow milk contains fat) might trigger rib pain both on the left (possible pancreatitis) and right sides (most likely gallbladder issues).
Drinking too hot coffee can trigger esophageal spasms, causing pain around the breastbone.
Alcohol can trigger pain around the sternum for several reasons, check out our article about chest pain after drinking alcohol for more.
Liver disease is another possible consequence of long-term drinking. This might cause pain below the right rib cage.
Less common causes of rib pain after eating
These conditions either do not typically cause rib pain or the rib pain is usually not eating-related:
Pleurisy is the inflammation of tissues separating the lungs and the chest wall.
Pain in both left and right rib cages is a typical symptom of pleurisy, however, pleurisy is triggered not triggered by eating, but by breathing in and out.
Irritable bowel disease (IBD)
IBD – like Crohn’s disease and ulcerative colitis – is the chronic inflammation of the digestive tract.
Typical symptoms are stomach pain, diarrhea, and gas.
Rib pain is not a typical symptom of IBD, however, in some cases, the pain might radiate up from the abdomen into the chest area.
Kidney stones usually cause a sharp pain in the back, which might be felt under the ribs.
Other symptoms are:
- nausea, vomiting
- smelly, dark urine
Albeit not a typical symptom, food allergies can cause swelling in various parts of the body which might sometimes cause pain around the rib cages.
Typical food allergy symptoms are:
- itchy skin or mouth
- swelling most often occurs in the mouth, tongue, or throat
Food allergies might cause shortness of breath and anaphylaxis, which is a medical emergency.
Pain around the ribs and sternum after eating can be caused by several medical conditions.
Observing your other symptoms and the location of the pain will help your doctor to diagnose the cause.
Certain causes of eating-related rib pain might be managed with the proper diet and lifestyle changes, but others require either medication or surgery.
Therefore, it is important to talk to a doctor if you are experiencing rib pain after having a meal.