What is Costochondritis?

Costochondritis is a condition that affects the cartilage connecting the rib to the breastbone. This condition can cause pain that mimics a heart attack or other condition of the chest.  Sometimes, this condition is referred to as chest wall pain. At times, the affected area swells and creates more discomfort.

This condition usually has no obvious cause and the person experiencing the pain is usually confused as to why they are experiencing it. The majority of patients who are seen in the emergency room initially present because they feel as though they are having a mild heart attack.

The condition may improve on its own without medical treatment, but it does take a minimum of several weeks. It can take months to correct itself.

What are the Symptoms of Costochondritis?

The symptoms of costochondritis typically follow this pattern:

  • Pain on the left side of the chest.
  • A sharp pressure in the chest or aching sensation.
  • Typically, this condition affects more than one rib at a time.
  • The pain worsens with deep breaths or coughs.

Since the symptoms of this condition closely resemble a heart attack, it is important that you receive medical treatment to determine the cause of your pain.

Costochondritis Causes

Patients who develop costochondritis often have no known cause behind the condition. However, there are some cases in which a pervious surgery has been known to cause it. After some chest surgeries, the cartilage in the area becomes prone to infection that stems from less blood flow to the area. There are also bacterial infections that can come from the use of IV drugs that can result in the condition. Both tuberculosis and syphilis are known causes of costochondritis.

In addition, there are a number of infectious diseases that can result in this condition. Respiratory infections can cause the area to become inflamed either from the coughing it causes or from the viral infection itself. Bacterial infections that set in after surgery can also cause it. In rare cases, a fungal infection can result in costochondritis. Blunt trauma to the area from a fall or accident can cause it, as can straining during heavy lifting or intensive exercise. Some types of arthritis as well as certain tumors in the chest can also be a causal factor.

How is Costochondritis Treated?

Treatment for costochondritis usually follows the same regimen as other injury like conditions. The area may take a few weeks or longer to heal. Therefore, the treatment is mostly focused on relieving the pain associated with the condition.

Treatment includes

NSAIDs – non-steroidal anti-inflammatories may be prescribed to relieve the swelling in the area surrounding the rib to breast bone connections.

Narcotic Pain Relievers – Narcotic pain relievers may be prescribed to help treat the pain associated with the condition. Your doctor will recommend that you stop taking them when you are once again comfortable.

Antidepressant medications – antidepressant medication contains ingredients and properties that help relive chronic pain. It is also great for treating pain that keeps you awake at night.

Anti-seizure medications – Certain anti-seizure medications also have properties that relive pain. This is because they interrupt the signals sent from the nerves receiving the pain and the pain the brain interprets.

Physical therapy – Physical therapy, such as stretching and exercises, has proven to provide relief to the chest muscles. Many patients have found that they heal much faster through the use of physical therapy.

Costochondritis Prevention

In many cases, the cause of costochondritis isn’t known, making it impossible to prevent this condition in those cases. However, there are many ways to reduce the risk of contracting it. Because the repetitive overuse of chest muscles is one cause, getting into the habit of using better posture can help to prevent it. Using better ergonomics both at home and at work can also help. Because so many infections can cause this condition, being careful to avoid infections after surgery is an important way to prevent costochondritis. Seeking treatment at the first sign of bacterial and fungal infections can reduce the chance of developing this complication. Preventing chest strain during workouts and taking care to lift heavy items properly can also reduce the risk.

Last Reviewed:
September 19, 2016
Last Updated:
December 08, 2017