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Costochondritis - causes, symptoms, treatment

 
Costochondritis is a condition that causes pain in the front of the chest.  It is the result of inflammation at the point where the upper ribs attach to the breastbone (sternum).
 
Costochondritis is a relatively harmless condition that will usually go away without treatment.  However, it can cause anxiety as its symptoms may be mistaken for a heart attack. The sudden onset of chest pain should be assessed immediately by emergency services or a doctor. 

Causes

There is often no definitive cause for costochondritis. It can be associated with an injury to the rib cage or with unusual physical activity or strain (eg: heavy lifting or severe coughing). Costochondritis can occur after a respiratory illness such as a cold or flu and in people with underlying conditions including fibromyalgia, systemic lupus erythematosus and ankylosing spondylitis.   

Costochondritis affects females more often than males, and more commonly occurs in adolescents and young adults. 

Symptoms

The main symptoms of costochondritis are pain and tenderness at the junction of the ribs and the breastbone as a result of cartilage tissue between the bones becoming inflamed. The pain increases with movement and deep breathing and decreases with rest and quiet breathing. Pressure placed directly on the affected area will also cause significant pain.

The pain can vary in intensity but is often severe. It may be described as pressure, aching or sharp pain. It is usually located on the front of the chest, but can radiate to the back, abdomen, arm or shoulder. 

The pain usually occurs on only one side of the chest, most commonly the left, but can affect both sides of the chest at the same time. Symptoms of costochondritis usually last for between one and three weeks.

Costochondritis symptoms can be mistaken for a heart attack. However, the pain of a heart attack covers the whole chest and is often accompanied by shortness of breath, nausea and sweating.  If the onset of pain is sudden, contact emergency services or a doctor.

Diagnosis

A diagnosis of costochondritis can usually be made by assessing the nature of the symptoms and by the fact the pain can be reproduced by pressing on the affected area. Sometimes tests to rule out other more serious conditions may be recommended: 

  • A chest X-ray
  • An electrocardiogram (ECG), which is a tracing of the heart’s electrical activity
  • Blood tests.

Treatment

Often the symptoms of costochondritis resolve without treatment. Where treatment is required, the aim is to reduce inflammation and control pain. Treatment usually consists of: 

  • Rest and avoiding activities that worsen the pain
  • Non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) such as ibuprofen and pain-relieving medications such as paracetamol
  • Ice and/or heat packs applied to the area
  • Gentle stretching of the upper chest (pectoral) muscles two or three times a day.

If the pain is extreme and/or prolonged, a corticosteroid medication such as hydrocortisone may be injected into the affected area to help reduce pain and inflammation. In rare cases, where the condition does not respond to medical treatment, surgery to remove the inflamed cartilage may be required. 

References

Flowers, L.K. (2020). Costochondritis (Web page). Medscape Drugs and Diseases. New York, NY: WebMD LLC. https://emedicine.medscape.com/article/808554-overview#a4 [Accessed: 20/08/20]
NHS (2029). Costochondritis (Web Page). Redditch: National Health Service (NHS) England. https://www.nhs.uk/conditions/costochondritis/ [Accessed: 20/08/20]
O'Toole, M.T. (Ed) (2017). Costochondritis. Mosby's Dictionary of Medicine, Nursing & Health Professions (10th ed). St Louis, MI: Elsevier.

Last Reviewed: August 2020

 
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