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Costochondritis

Costochondritis (kos-toe-KHON-dri-tis) is an inflammation of the cartilage that connects a rib to the breastbone (sternum) — a junction known as the costosternal joint. Pain caused by costochondritis may mimic that of a heart attack or other heart conditions.

Your doctor might refer to costochondritis by other names, including chest wall pain, costosternal syndrome and costosternal chondrodynia. When the pain of costochondritis is accompanied by swelling, it's referred to as Tietze syndrome.

Most cases of costochondritis have no apparent cause. In these cases, treatment focuses on easing your pain while you wait for costochondritis to improve on its own.

Symptoms Causes Risk factors Prevention

The pain and tenderness associated with costochondritis usually:

  • Occurs on left side of breastbone
  • Affects more than one rib
  • Worsens when taking deep breaths or coughing

When to see a doctor

If you have chest pain, you should seek emergency medical attention to rule out life-threatening causes such as a heart attack.

Most cases of costochondritis have no clear cause. Occasionally, however, costochondritis may be a result of:

  • Injury. A blow to the chest could cause costochondritis.
  • Physical strain. Heavy lifting and strenuous exercise have been linked to costochondritis, as has severe coughing.
  • Arthritis. In some people, costochondritis has been linked to specific problems, such as osteoarthritis, rheumatoid arthritis and ankylosing spondylitis.
  • Joint infection. The rib joint itself can become infected by viruses, bacteria or fungi. Examples include tuberculosis, syphilis and aspergillosis.
  • Tumors. Noncancerous and cancerous tumors also can cause costochondritis. Cancer may travel to the joint from another part of the body, such as the breast, thyroid or lung.

Costochondritis occurs most often in women and in people older than 40.

Although the cause of costochondritis is often unknown, there's some evidence that children who carry a heavy school bag, especially over one shoulder, are at increased risk of this condition. Upper respiratory infections, heavy lifting and strenuous exercise also may be linked to costochondritis.

Common-sense preventive steps that may reduce the risk of costochondritis and protect you and your family's overall health include:

  • Encourage your child to use school bags properly. Make sure your child's bag is not so heavy that your child's shoulders slump, and show your child how to carry the bag appropriately.
  • Avoid activities that seem to trigger costochondritis-like pain. If chest pain and tenderness seem to result from physical exertion, ask your doctor to provide safe guidelines for your exercise program and for lifting.
  • Take steps to prevent respiratory infection. Wash your hands thoroughly and often, avoid sharing drinking glasses or utensils with others and limit your exposure to people who are ill.
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