Outline of torso showing ribcage with inflamed cartilage.

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.

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 costochondritis. The condition is diagnosed by the symptoms you have. Your healthcare provider will perform a physical exam. He or she will ask you about your symptoms and examine your chest for tenderness. In some cases, tests are done to rule out more serious problems. These tests may include imaging tests such as chest X-ray, CT scan, or an ECG.

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

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

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

  • Perform stretching exercises as directed.

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

  • Pain that is not relieved by medicine

  • Shortness of breath

  • Lightheadedness, dizziness, or fainting

  • Feeling of irregular heartbeat or fast pulse

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