Costochondritis Shortness of Breath: When chest pain strikes, the normal reaction is to fear a heart attack and go into a panic. However, to understand the chest and its pain, it is necessary to know of what the chest is comprised.
The ribs protect the lungs. They are encased in a wall of muscle called the chest wall. This wall extends from the collarbone to just beneath the ribs.
Sometimes pain comes not from the chest wall but from the ligaments and tendons attaching the ribs to the breastbone, or sternum. Unfortunately, these things make the chest feel as if it’s enduring a heart attack. The pain is felt in the actual chest wall. Cartilage and ligaments aren’t painful, but the joints to which they attach are. This pain will be our focus.
If people watch medical shows on TV, they’ll see a patient with machines breathing for him. As he breathes in, a folded thing inside a cylinder rises. When he breathes out, it collapses. This is how the lungs work. However, in order to breathe in and out, the bones of the rib cage have to give a little. Bones don’t move, but the ligaments and cartilage attached to them do.
These are the joints that attach the ribs to the breastbone or sternum and the breastbone to the collarbone or clavicle. They facilitate the movement of the ribs to accommodate the lungs’ work.
The joints between the ribs and breastbone are called the costosternal joints. The ones connecting the breastbone to the collarbone are called sternoclavicular joints. Costochondritis is when these joints become inflamed, causing pain and shortness of breath. It isn’t serious and will last a few weeks. Check with your doctor for pain management.
When experiencing pain in the chest wall, the pain will either be sharp and stabbing, or it will be a dull ache. The pain will be localized to one of two places: the left of the breastbone or the front of the chest wall. It will feel like pressure is being brought to bear upon the chest. Deep breathing and coughing makes the pain worse. Shortness of breath is the result.
No one knows what actually causes this shortness of breath, but several things can impact it. Heavy lifting will do it, as well as a blow to the chest. Arthritis is a big contributor, as is both cancerous and noncancerous tumors traveling from the thyroid or lungs to the joints. Joint infections like viruses can also impact the joints.
People of all ages, from small children to the elderly, are at risk for developing this shortness of breath. It is most commonly seen in teens and young adults. Those performing repetitive movements, as in work or exercise, are straining the chest wall, and are at risk of encountering it.
Studies have shown that more women than men are at risk of the shortness of breath. Fibromyalgia tends to affect sufferers. This is a general term used to describe body-wide pain when no specific condition can be found causing the pain.
Sufferers of shortness of breath are understandably frustrated at the lack of specific cures for such a frightening condition. Most doctors will prescribe anti-inflammatory medication as well as pain medications or ibuprofen. Other drugs such as Vicodin or Percocet could be prescribed for very severe pain.
Antidepressant drugs are sometimes prescribed if the pain is keeping sufferers up all night. Should be pain become extreme, nerve-blocking shots can be administered that will block the pain signal from the nerve to the brain. These shots can last up to months at a time.
Other more natural or holistic treatments exist to help with shortness of breath. Applying ice and then heat is often helpful in controlling the pain. Acupuncture has been suggested as helpful, along with physical therapy and/or chiropractic work. Gentle stretching exercises, such as those that are performed before a workout, are helpful in controlling the pain. A chiropractor can also tell sufferers about transcutaneous electrical nerve stimulation or TENS.
This is a machine that uses patches attached to the skin near the site of the pain. A weak electrical impulse is then sent through the patches, impacting the painful area. It’s like a gentle electrical massage and is surprisingly effective.
Perhaps the most effective of all treatments for costochondritis is rest. Don’t move the chest and upper body any more than you have to. Exercise is, of course, out of the question, as are sports or any other vigorous activity. The problem will take care of itself, the experts tell us, but it will take a few weeks.