Costochondritis is inflammation of a rib or the cartilage that connects a rib to your breastbone (sternum). It causes tenderness, and sometimes chest pain may be sharp or aching, or it may feel like pressure. Pain may get worse with deep breathing, movement, or exercise. In some cases, the pain is mistaken for a heart attack. Despite this, the condition is not serious. Read on to learn more about the condition and how it can be treated.

Outline of torso showing ribcage. Cartilage connects ribs to sternum in center of chest. Cartilage is inflamed.

What Causes Costochondritis?

The cause of costochondritis is not completely clear, but it may happen after a chest injury, chest infection or coughing episode. Some physical activities can sometimes lead to costochondritis. Large-breasted women may be more likely to have the condition. Often, the reason for the inflammation is unknown.

Diagnosing Costochondritis

There is no test for costochrondritis. The condition is diagnosed by the symptoms you have. In some cases, tests are done to rule out more serious problems. These tests may include imaging tests such as chest X-ray or CT scan.

Treating Costochondritis

If an underlying cause is found, treatment for that will likely relieve the problem. Costochondritis often goes away on its own. The course of the condition varies from person to person. It usually lasts from weeks to months. In some cases, mild symptoms continue for months to years. To ease symptoms:

  • Take medications as directed. These relieve pain and swelling. Ibuprofen or other NSAIDs are often recommended. In some cases, you may be given prescription medication, such as muscle relaxants.

  • Avoid activities that put stress on the chest or spine.

  • Apply a heating pad (set to warm, not to high, heat) to the breastbone several times a day.

  • Perform stretching exercises as directed

Call the health care provider right away if you have any of the following:

  • Pain that is not relieved by medication

  • Shortness of breath

  • Lightheadedness, dizziness, or fainting

  • Feeling of irregular heartbeat or fast pulse

Anyone with chest pain should see a doctor, especially those who are older and may be at risk for heart disease.