Costochondritis: What You Need to Know

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Costochondritis is a mysterious condition that can cause chest pain, among other symptoms. 

If you experience chest pain, it can be an alarming symptom in almost any circumstance. Most people’s thoughts initially go to a heart attack. However, once that is ruled out, other conditions can lead to chest pain. One of these is costochondritis, a condition characterized by inflammation and swelling in the cartilage that attaches the ribs to the breastbone. 

It's not a heart attack

costochondritisCostochondritis often causes sharp pain and tenderness, especially when you breathe, cough, or press on the area where the ribs meet the breastbone. The pain may also radiate to the stomach or back. Robert Schwartz, M.D., chair of the Department of Family Medicine and Community Health at the University of Miami Health System, says that the symptoms differ from a heart attack in several ways. However, it’s always best to err on the side of caution.  

“The pain is usually not as severe as an acute heart attack and often is not accompanied by the characteristic symptoms of a heart attack, such as pain in the jaw, pain in the left arm, and heartburn-like pain,” he says. 

What causes costochondritis?

Adding to the mystery surrounding costochondritis is the fact that the cause isn’t always obvious. “We don’t know the cause of the condition, but it may be caused by a viral infection,” says Dr. Schwartz. Other potential causes are injury, overuse, strain from coughing, infections, and arthritis. Stress does not appear to be a contributing factor to costochondritis. And though it can cause coughing and shortness of breath, COVID-19 also does not appear to be linked to costochondritis symptoms. 

How can I relieve the pain?

One bit of good news about costochondritis is that it typically resolves itself over a short amount of time. “The pain typically goes away on its own, often in a week or two,” says Dr. Schwartz. If a case of costochondritis is causing uncomfortable symptoms, several approaches help relieve them. “Often anti-inflammatory medications are prescribed, such as acetaminophen, ibuprofen, or a muscle relaxant known as cyclobenzaprine (Flexeril),” says Schwartz. “It also helps to apply a wet, warm compress to the area of discomfort.” 

The final word

In most cases, Schwartz says, costochondritis isn’t a diagnosis to be alarmed about. The symptoms tend to subside fairly quickly, and a person typically has no lingering effects from them. However, he says it’s best to consult your physician if any alarming symptoms arise as a complication of costochondritis. “If the pain intensifies, or one develops shortness of breath, weakness, fatigue, or a fever, then one should consult a physician,” he says. 


Wyatt Myers is a contributor to UMiami Health News.


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