Your intercostal muscles attach to your ribs. When you
breathe in air, they normally contract and move your ribs up. At the same time,
your diaphragm, which is a thin muscle that separates your chest and abdomen,
drops lower and your lungs fill with air. When you have a partial blockage in
your upper airway or the small airways in your lungs, air can’t flow freely and
the pressure in this part of your body decreases. As a result, your intercostal
muscles pull sharply inward. These movements are known as intercostal
retractions, or recession.
Intercostal retractions indicate that something is blocking
your airway. Asthma, pneumonia, and other respiratory diseases can all cause a
Seek medical help immediately if you or someone you’re with
experiences intercostal recession. Airway obstruction is a medical emergency.
Causes Intercostal Recession?
Several conditions can cause a blockage in the airways and
lead to intercostal recession.
Respiratory Illnesses Common in Adults
Some respiratory illnesses are more common in adults,
although they do occur in children as well.
Asthma is a chronic condition that causes inflammation and
narrowing of the airways. This leads to wheezing, shortness of breath, and
chest tightness. About 25 million people in the United States have asthma,
according to the National Heart,
Lung, and Blood Institute.
Pneumonia occurs when your lungs become inflamed from an
infection. It can be very mild in some cases and life-threatening in others. It
can also lead to serious complications, especially in older adults and those
who have weak immune systems.
occurs when the cartilage that covers the top of your windpipe becomes swollen
and prevents air from reaching your lungs. This is a life-threatening medical
Respiratory Illnesses Common in Children
These conditions most commonly occur in children.
Respiratory distress syndrome occurs when a newborn’s lungs
collapse. It causes serious difficulty breathing. It’s most common in premature
babies because they don’t produce a substance called surfactant that helps keep
small sacs in their lungs open. It mainly occurs shortly after birth and can
lead to brain damage and other serious complications if the child doesn’t
receive prompt treatment.
A retropharyngeal abscess is a buildup of pus and other
infected material in the back of your child’s throat. It happens mostly in
children under 5 years old and requires prompt medical treatment and sometimes
surgery to prevent it from blocking the airways.
Bronchiolitis occurs when a virus infects the small airways,
or bronchioles, in your child’s lungs. It occurs most commonly in babies under
6 months old and is more common during winter. You can usually treat this at
home. It goes away in about a week.
Croup occurs when your child’s windpipe and vocal cords
become inflamed due to a virus or bacteria. It causes a loud, barking cough. It
typically sounds worse in children under 3 years old because their airways are
smaller. It’s usually a mild condition that you can treat at home.
Foreign Object Aspiration
Aspiration occurs when you inhale or swallow a foreign
object that becomes stuck and causes breathing problems. A foreign object
lodged in your windpipe can cause intercostal retractions. It’s more common in
young children because they’re more likely to breathe in or swallow a foreign
Anaphylaxis occurs when something, such as food or
medication, triggers a serious allergic reaction. It usually happens within 30
minutes of encountering an allergen. It can constrict your airways and lead to
severe breathing problems. This is a medical emergency that can be fatal
Are the Treatment Options for Intercostal Recession?
The first step in treatment is helping the affected person
breathe again. You might receive oxygen or medications that can relieve any
swelling you have in your respiratory system. Let your doctor know as much as
possible about your condition, such as how often the retractions occur, whether
you’ve been sick, and whether you have any other symptoms. If your child is the
one receiving treatment, let the doctor know if your child might have swallowed
a small object or if your child has been sick.
When your breathing is stable, your doctor will treat your
underlying condition. The methods used will depend upon the condition that
caused you to have retractions.
Is the Long-Term Outlook?
Intercostal recession shouldn’t return once you receive
successful treatment for the underlying condition. Conditions such as asthma
require you to be vigilant in suppressing your symptoms, however. Neglecting
your underlying condition can cause a relapse of intercostal retractions.
The outlook for the cause of the retractions depends on what
the condition is and how serious it is. Monitoring your health and maintaining
communication with your doctor will help you avoid any triggers and keep you in
good health. If you or your child has a condition that could lead to
intercostal retractions, developing an emergency plan can help relieve anxiety
How Can I Prevent Intercostal Recession?
You can’t prevent intercostal recession, but you can lower
your risk of having some of the conditions that cause it.
You can help prevent viral infections by avoiding contact
with people who are sick, washing your hands often, and wiping down the
counters and other surfaces in your home if you live with someone who is sick.
Try to avoid coming into contact with things that you are
allergic to. This can help reduce your risk of having anaphylaxis.
You can lower your child’s risk of breathing in a foreign
object by keeping small objects out of reach and cutting food into smaller
pieces that are easier to chew and swallow.