What is a bruised sternum?

Chest pain can be alarming, but more often than not, it’s nothing serious. Many people with chest pain describe feeling like their sternum is bruised. The sternum is more commonly called the breastbone.

While it’s possible to bruise your sternum, this pain is more likely caused by costochondritis. This is inflammation of the cartilage that connects your ribs to your sternum. Learn about other possible causes of sternum pain.

However, if you’ve been in an accident or taken a blow to the chest recently, you may have a bruised sternum. Keep reading to learn more about signs to look out for and treatment options.

The main symptom of a bruised sternum is intense pain that often gets worse when you breathe, cough, or rotate your torso.

Other symptoms of a bruised sternum include:

  • discoloration of your chest skin
  • tenderness
  • swelling
  • stiffness

A bruised sternum is almost always the result of a traumatic blow to the chest or breastbone area. This is often caused by car accidents. Hitting your chest on the steering wheel or slamming against a seatbelt can both bruise your sternum. Sports injuries, especially from high-impact contact sports, can also bruise your sternum. In rare cases, a particularly forceful cough can injure your sternum as well.

Your doctor can likely determine whether you have a bruised sternum by giving you a physical exam. They’ll check for signs of bruising, such as swelling or discoloration. You may also need a chest X-ray to make sure you don’t have a sternal fracture. Bruises on your bones won’t show up on X-rays, so they can also help to confirm your diagnosis.

Treating a bruised sternum often involves waiting for it to heal on its own, which usually takes about two to four weeks, though healing time varies depending on how severe the bruising is.

While your sternum heals, there are several things you can do to speed up the process and reduce your pain, including:

In some cases, bruise-like pain in your sternum can be a sign of a more serious condition. Seek emergency treatment if your chest pain is accompanied by any of the following:

In addition, go to an emergency room if you’ve been in a high-speed car accident. Sternal fractures resulting from these accidents are often associated with other injuries that should be evaluated by a healthcare provider.

While a bruised sternum can feel serious because it’s so close to your heart, it usually heals on its own within a few weeks. While you heal, try to avoid as much heavy lifting as possible. If you start to notice other symptoms, such as jaw pain or dizziness, contact your doctor right away.