Each of your ribs is connected to your breastbone by a piece of cartilage. The point where your rib connects to this cartilage is known as your costochondral joint.
Costochondral separation is an injury that occurs when one or more of your ribs separates from this cartilage. This type of injury is also called a separated rib.
Here’s a look at the causes, common symptoms, when to seek care, and what type of treatment to expect with a costochondral separation.
Costal cartilage between your ribs and breastbone gives your rib cage more flexibility and the ability to expand when you breathe.
A sudden impact to your rib cage can cause a tear in this costal cartilage where your ribs are attached.
Violent, twisting motions or an impact to one side of your body can potentially lead to a separated rib. This can happen due to:
- a car accident
- sports injury
- a fall
- a blow or punch to the chest
- violent coughing
Many people who are diagnosed with a separated rib also have one or more fractured ribs.
The most common symptoms of a separated rib include the following:
- sharp pain between your rib and breastbone
- sharp pain when breathing, sneezing, or coughing
- pain that comes and goes
- a popping feeling when the injury happens
If the injury is severe, multiple ribs may be either separated or fractured.
If you also have a fractured rib, you may notice bruising on your rib cage and swelling around the injury.
A costochondral separation may also be called a rib dislocation. A dislocation is an injury to a joint that causes a bone to be displaced from its usual position.
A rib dislocation can also occur in your back where the head of your rib attaches to your spine.
If you’re experiencing sharp pain around your ribs or breastbone, it’s important to get medical attention right away.
Rib injuries can cause serious complications, such as:
- a collapsed lung
- ruptured aorta, in rare cases
- potentially life threatening injuries to your liver or spleen, in rare cases
A medical professional will be able to determine if your injury needs further medical attention or if it can be treated with rest and pain medication.
Many types of rib injuries have similar symptoms. If your doctor suspects that you have a costochondral separation, they’ll likely recommend an imaging test to confirm their diagnosis.
A chest MRI is often used to diagnosis a rib separation. CT scans or ultrasounds may also help your doctor differentiate a costochondral separation from a rib fracture.
A separated rib won’t show up on an X-ray. However, your doctor may recommend an X-ray if they suspect you also have a broken rib.
Separated ribs often heal by themselves within 2 to 3 months. If your separated rib isn’t causing any complications, your doctor may give you pain medication and instruct you to rest until your symptoms subside.
If your injury is more serious, or if you also have one or more broken ribs, your doctor may recommend
In some cases, rib separation can lead to a potentially life threatening condition called flail chest, which requires immediate medical attention.
Flail chest occurs when you experience multiple adjacent rib fractures. It can cause a section of your chest to become separated from the rest of your ribs. This can damage your internal organs and cause internal bleeding.
Emergency thoracotomy surgery may be necessary if severe damage to your heart or lungs occurs as a result of your injury.
Ribs can’t be splinted like many other bones in your body. As a result, for less serious injuries, the best treatment option is often to get as much rest as possible.
Your doctor can recommend specific ways that you can manage your injury at home.
Some ways you may be able to manage a separated rib include:
- taking nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) such as ibuprofen (Advil, Motrin) naproxen (Aleve), or aspirin
- icing your injury to help manage pain and swelling
- resting as much as possible
- holding a pillow against your chest when coughing
- breaking up mucus by taking 10 deep breaths once an hour
It isn’t a good idea to wrap a bandage around your chest because the bandage can restrict your breathing.
Costochondral separation occurs when your rib tears away from the cartilage that connects it to your breastbone.
This type of injury is usually caused by a sudden impact to your chest. Symptoms include sharp pain when you breathe, cough, or sneeze.
In less serious cases, separated ribs can often be treated with rest and pain medication. But in severe cases, this type of injury may have the potential to cause damage to your internal organs.
If your injury is more serious, or if you have multiple broken ribs, your doctor may recommend surgery.