Costochondritis is an inflammation of the cartilage in the rib cage. It can happen due to infection, injury, and other health conditions.

This condition usually affects the cartilage where the upper ribs attach to the breastbone, also known as the sternum, in an area known as the costosternal joint or costosternal junction.

Chest pain caused by costochondritis can range from mild to severe. Mild cases may only cause your chest to feel slightly tender or some pain when you push on the area.

More severe cases may get worse with certain movements as well as with deep breaths. The condition often goes away within a few weeks or months, but some cases may require treatment.

People with costochondritis often experience chest pain in the upper and middle rib area on either side of the breastbone. This pain can gradually increase over time, or come on suddenly.

Additional symptoms can include:

  • pain that becomes worse when lying down
  • pain that becomes worse when there’s pressure on your chest, like when you wear a seatbelt
  • pain that intensifies with coughing or deep breaths
  • pain that increases with physical activity

It’s important to note that symptoms like chest tightness and radiating pain can indicate other conditions, including a heart attack. Seek immediate medical care if you’re experiencing persistent, intense chest pain.

The exact cause of costochondritis in most people is unknown. But conditions that may cause it include:

  • trauma to the chest, such as blunt impact from a car accident or fall
  • physical strain from activities, such as heavy lifting and strenuous exercise
  • certain viruses or respiratory conditions, such as tuberculosis, that can cause joint inflammation
  • severe coughing

There’s some research that suggests costochondritis occurs more often in women, especially those who are athletes. You may also be at a higher risk for this condition if you:

  • participate in high-impact activities
  • recently had a physical trauma or fall that affected the chest area
  • have allergies and are frequently exposed to irritants

While there’s no test to diagnose costochondritis, your doctor will most likely ask a series of questions and do a series of tests to determine the source of your chest pain.

Lab tests

Typically, lab tests aren’t needed to diagnose costochondritis, but depending on your personal health history, your doctor may do some tests to see if your chest pain could be due to other issues like pneumonia or coronary heart disease.

X-rays and ECGs

Your doctor may want you to get an X-ray to make sure there’s nothing abnormal going out with your lungs.

If you’re dealing with costochondritis, your X-ray should look normal. They may also recommend an electrocardiogram (ECG) to make sure your heart isn’t the cause of your chest pain.

Many times, diagnosing costochondritis is a matter of eliminating other possible, more serious causes.

See your doctor right away if you have trouble breathing or are feeling intense chest pain.

Always seek immediate emergency care when you have abnormal and debilitating pain in your chest. It can indicate something serious, such as a heart attack.

Getting care as soon as possible limits the possibility of complications, especially if an underlying issue is causing your costochondritis.

Costochondritis can be treated in several ways.

Most cases of costochondritis are treated with over-the-counter medications. If your pain is mild to moderate, your doctor will probably recommend nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) such as ibuprofen (Advil) or naproxen (Aleve).

Your doctor may also recommend:

  • prescription-strength NSAIDs
  • oral steroids or injection of a steroid into the area involved
  • transcutaneous electrical nerve stimulation (TENS), which is a mild electric current that is delivered to the area via a small, battery-powered device

Lifestyle changes

Your doctor may tell you to make permanent lifestyle changes if you have persistent or chronic costochondritis.

Some types of exercise can aggravate this condition, including rowing and weightlifting. Manual labor may also have a negative effect.

Your doctor may also recommend:

Normally, treatment of the inflammation and pain causes costochondritis to eventually go away on its own.

If you have chronic costochondritis, the pain may persist or return — even with treatment — when you exercise or engage in certain activities. In these cases, you may need to seek long-term care to make sure that costochondritis doesn’t affect your quality of life and ability to take part in daily activities.

Pains associated with costochondritis can indicate other issues. Chest pain can often mean that you’re having heart or lung issues, so see your doctor right away when you feel pain in your chest to make sure that you’re not having a heart attack or have pneumonia.

The chest pain associated with costochondritis can be a symptom of fibromyalgia. With fibromyalgia, you may experience soreness in your chest in addition to:

  • pain throughout your body
  • fatigue and inability to rest due to pain
  • difficulty focusing or concentrating
  • feelings of depression
  • headaches

If you experience chest pains along with these other symptoms, talk with your doctor about getting tested for fibromyalgia. Understanding this condition can help you address the symptoms and ensure that it doesn’t interrupt your daily life.

Costochondritis is caused by inflammation and typically presents as chest pain that gets worse with certain movements or pressure. This condition usually isn’t persistent. In many cases, costochondritis goes away on its own.

Mild cases of costochondritis may disappear after a few days. Chronic cases can last for weeks or more, but most cases don’t last any longer than a year.

To lower your chances of developing persistent costochondritis, carry and lift heavy loads properly. Try doing fewer high-impact exercises or manual labor, when possible.

Seek medical attention immediately if you experience chest pain while performing any of these activities.