A few months into the school year, Sophie noticed a sharp pain in her chest. She freaked out, worried she was having a heart attack. Sophie and her mom called the doctor to find out what was going on.
The doctor asked Sophie to come into the office. He asked about her symptoms, what she'd been doing before she felt the pain, and what kinds of exercising she'd been doing. The doctor told Sophie she had a condition called costochondritis.
What Is Costochondritis?
Costochondritis is an inflammation of the cartilage that attaches a rib to your breastbone (sternum). Costochondritis is a fairly common cause of chest pain. It usually affects girls more than guys.
The sternum is the hard bone that goes down the center of your chest, from the bottom of your neck to the top of your abdomen. Your ribs are connected to the sternum by rubbery cartilage at points called costosternal joints. These joints are where someone with costochondritis feels pain. Costochondritis can affect one or more of these joints.
Costochondritis can hurt, but it's really harmless. It usually goes away on its own after a week or so. Sometimes it can last for a few months, though.
You may hear medical staff call costochondritis by other names — like chest wall pain or costosternal syndrome — but it's all the same thing.
What Causes Costochondritis?
It's not always obvious what causes costochondritis. Doctors think it's usually caused by hard exercise or a minor injury from something like lifting a heavy object or coughing.
What Are the Signs?
The main signs of costochondritis are pain and tenderness on one side of the chest. The pain is usually sharp. It's often on the left side of the sternum (although it is possible to have pain on both sides).
If you have costochondritis, the pain may get worse when you take deep breaths, cough, move your upper body, or press on the sore area. The pain may lessen when you stop moving or take shallower breaths, but it usually doesn't go away entirely.
Costochondritis pain can be scary. Lots of teens worry that they're having a heart attack. So it can help to remember that heart attacks are extremely rare in teens. You'll still want to get checked out by a doctor to find out what's going on, though.
How Is It Diagnosed?
If you have sharp chest pain that doesn't go away, call a doctor or go to a hospital emergency room. In rare cases, chest pain can be an emergency situation that requires immediate medical attention.
To diagnose costochondritis, a doctor or nurse practitioner will ask questions about the pain, then feel along your sternum for areas that are tender.
It's usually not possible to see costochondritis on chest X-rays or other imaging tests. Still, your doctor might order these tests to rule out other possible causes of chest pain, such as pneumonia.
How Is It Treated?
Costochondritis usually goes away on its own within a few days or weeks, but in some cases it can go on longer. To help ease the pain until costochondritis goes away, doctors may recommend over-the-counter pain medications such as ibuprofen.
What Can You Do at Home?
Here are some things doctors recommend for dealing with costochondritis:
- Try to get plenty of rest.
- Avoid activities that make the pain worse.
- When you're feeling better, you can do some of your usual activities. But be careful not to overdo things. Too much exercise can sometimes make costochondritis pain worse.
- Using a heating pad on the low setting or putting warm compresses on the painful area can provide some relief.
Can You Prevent Costochondritis?
It's not really possible to prevent costochondritis, since it's not always clear what causes it. You can take steps to avoid some of the known causes, though:
- If you know that some activities may cause you to have costochondritis-like pain, do your best to avoid them. You might want to work with a doctor or trainer to come up with an exercise program that doesn't cause symptoms to flare up.
- Minimize the amount of heavy lifting you do.
- If you have to carry lots of books, use a backpack or a bookbag that spreads the weight out evenly. Students who frequently carry heavy school bags may have an increased risk of costochondritis, especially if they carry a bag over one shoulder.
The good news about costochondritis is that it's not serious. But it definitely can be scary! That's why it helps to talk to a doctor. That way, if the doctor says you have costochondritis, you can relax and take the steps you need to feel better.
Reviewed by: Kate M. Cronan, MD
Date reviewed: October 2011