If you are experiencing chest pain or a “popping” sternum—a clicking or cracking sensation when moving or breathing deeply—then you may be suffering from costochondritis.
Costochondritis is inflammation of the cartilage that connects the ribs to the sternum (also known as your breastbone or chest bone). In most cases it should resolve on its own with little to no treatment. If the costochondritis is severe (e.g. the chest pain becomes excruciatingly painful) a visit to the emergency room may be needed.
Let’s take a further look at this condition.
What Causes Costochondritis?
Costochondritis is more common in adults over the age of 40. Although doctors can’t pinpoint the exact cause of the sternum pain (i.e. sternum popping and chest pain), it has been linked to the following:
- Physical strain to the chest muscles: Physical strain due to surgery, poor movement, weight lifting, muscle spasms, exercising or overuse of the upper limbs can cause costochondritis. In certain positions, force travels along the upper limbs to the chest due to the pectoral muscles tensing up (e.g. when performing push-ups).
- Repeated deep breathing: Dyspnea (shortness of breath or labored breathing) or constant deep breathing (e.g. as a result of chronic obstructive pulmonary disease —a lung disease that makes it difficult to breathe) can lead to costochondritis. The pain will often increase when taking deep breaths.
- Injury or direct trauma: Trauma or injury to the chest wall or costal cartilage, the cartilage that connects the sternum to the ribs, can lead to costochondritis or a popping sternum. This can be the result of a car accident where the chest slams against the steering wheel or airbag.
- Infections: Infections located within the chest wall or cavity could lead to inflammation of the costal cartilage.
- Respiratory diseases: Excessive sneezing or coughing as a result of a respiratory disease can increase the pressure on the chest wall and strain the costal cartilage.
Signs and Symptoms of Costochondritis
Swelling might not be as easily visible on a chest x-ray (except in critical cases like in a car accident). In extreme cases of costochondritis, the symptoms can be so intense that they can interfere with daily functioning and even during rest. Costochondritis cases that persist for more than three months may be considered chronic.
Here are signs to look out for:
- Pain that gradually develops over the weeks
- Pain on one side of the breast bone or chest wall
- A sharp or stabbing pain when you cough, sneeze or take deep breaths
- Sensitivity when pressure is placed on or near the chest bone
- A clicking or cracking noise when moving, breathing deeply, sneezing or coughing
5 Natural Home Remedies for Sternum Popping (Costochondritis)
Costochondritis typically gets better after a few weeks, but there are a few natural ways to help manage the symptoms. Costochondritis treatment includes:
- Menthol sports rubs: Sports rubs or chest rubs with menthol can relax the muscles, speed up the healing process and improve blood flow to the affected area.
- Relaxing massage: Most costochondritis sufferers won’t benefit from a rough massage because it will be too painful. A light massage, however, will help with blood flow and muscle relaxation if the sternum pain is not acute.
- Heat and/or ice packs: Apply heat or ice packs to the chest area to reduce breast bone pain and relax the muscles around the shoulders and chest wall.
- Cough medicine: Cough suppressants are useful when the chest wall pain progresses from a viral infection to a persistent cough.
- Acupuncture: The needles could potentially help improve blood flow to the affected areas. Although there are no clinical studies that prove acupuncture can relieve symptoms, some people do find relief.
Lifestyle Changes to Reduce Costochondritis Chest Pain
- Avoid tight clothing: Avoid constricting clothing, such as tight shirts, corsets and even underwire bras as they can place additional pressure on the inflamed joints between the sternum and ribs.
- Ergonomic workstation layout: An ergonomic workstation will allow you to work efficiently and it encourages good posture. For example, try using a separate keyboard and mouse and raise the monitor to eye height.
- Manage Stress: Find a relaxing hobby or meditate to help decrease anxiety and deal with depression.
- Organize your home and workplace: To reduce pressure on the chest area, organize your home in such a way that will involve minimal lifting, reaching and carrying. For example, keep heavy office materials and books at bench height.
Stretches for Effective Costochondritis Treatment
During a costochondritis flare-up, stretches can help increase mobility, reduce pain and encourage healing. Chest opening stretches will relax the muscles around your chest bone and improve blood flow.
Here are a few helpful stretches you can try:
- Lightly stretch your arms back against a door frame. Stop the stretch just before it begins to hurt.
- Shrug and rotate your shoulders slowly and carefully to preserve mobility.
- Go for a short walk. Breathing evenly while walking can help improve blood flow to the affected area and relax the chest muscles.
Finally, to avoid sternum pain or sternum popping, ask for assistance when carrying or lifting something. Avoid any contact sports and strenuous activities that involve using the upper body (i.e. yoga, swimming, or ironing). Carry as little as possible in your bag or use a backpack instead of a purse—it will sit evenly on your back. Remember, for effective costochondritis treatment, follow the stretching exercises above.
Sources for Today’s Article:
“Severe Costochondritis – Causes, Symptoms, Treatment,” Healthhype.com, http://www.healthhype.com/severe-costochondritis-causes-symptoms-treatment.html, last accessed November 2, 2015.
“Popping, Cracking, Clicking Sternum (Breastbone) Rib Joint,” Healthhype.com, http://www.healthhype.com/popping-cracking-clicking-sternum-breastbone-rib-joint.html, last accessed November 2, 2015.
Fergusson, K., “Costochondritis treatments: chest pain relief,” HubPages web site; last updated October 8, 2015; http://hubpages.com/health/Costochondritis-treatment, last accessed November 2, 2015.