When you experience chest pain, you might assume that you have pneumonia, a bruised rib or even a heart problem. Costochondritis, a lesser-known cause of chest pain, is more common. Prescribed and over-the-counter medications can help with the swollen cartilage that causes your sharp pain.
Costochondritis is a harmless swelling (inflammation) of cartilage in your chest. The cartilage connects your ribs to your breastbone (sternum), creating the costochondral joint. Costochondritis feels like a sharp or aching pain. The pain can start suddenly or develop slowly and spread across your chest.
Because the pain is in your chest, you might misinterpret costochondritis as a heart attack.
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Costochondritis is a common diagnosis in people with chest pain. One study revealed that 30% of people who go to the emergency department with chest pain are diagnosed with costochondritis.
Adults (especially people assigned female at birth) older than 40 are at a higher risk for costochondritis.
In adolescents aged 12 to 14, costochondritis accounts for 10% to 30% of chest pain complaints.
No, costochondritis isn’t contagious. The condition can’t be spread from you to another person.
No, costochondritis isn’t life-threatening. It’s common for the chest pain to be misinterpreted as a heart attack. But costochondritis is not fatal. Treatments are available to help you heal from this condition.
It’s not completely clear what causes costochondritis, but experts note that this condition can be triggered if you:
Costochondritis is sometimes a sign of other conditions that affect your cartilage like:
Rarely, there may be a tumor in your chest.
If you have costochondritis, you’ll feel pain that may start on the left side of your chest and spread (radiate) out to the rest of your chest. Sometimes the pain spreads to your stomach and your back.
You may notice that your costochondritis pain worsens when:
Diagnosing costochondritis starts with a process of elimination. When you go to your healthcare provider with chest pain, they’ll immediately test for:
Your healthcare provider will make a diagnosis of costochondritis based on your symptoms and their physical findings. Normally, there is no need for further testing.
Remember that you should always see a healthcare provider if you’re experiencing chest pain. It’s vital to get the right diagnosis so you can receive the best treatment.
Your healthcare provider might first recommend over-the-counter medications that can help reduce the swelling and pain in your chest. Medications include:
Take one dose two to three times per day, or as your healthcare provider recommends.
If those don’t help with your pain and swelling, your healthcare provider may prescribe:
If needed, your primary healthcare provider may refer you to a rheumatologist (a physician who specializes in diseases of the muscles, bones and joints) or a surgeon.
Surgery for costochondritis is rare. Sometimes, if other treatments aren’t successful, your surgeon may remove cartilage. A surgery that removes cartilage is called a chondrectomy.
There are ways you can help reduce symptoms of your costochondritis at home. Suggestions include:
Although you might be willing to try anything to reduce the pain or speed your recovery from costochondritis — even make changes to your diet — there’s really nothing you eat or drink that affects how you heal from costochondritis.
In most instances, costochondritis heals with or without treatment. Your healthcare provider may recommend medications and treatments that help with your pain and swelling.
Remember that you shouldn’t automatically assume that your chest pain is costochondritis. If you have severe chest pain, you should go to the emergency department for treatment. Don’t wait to see if it just goes away.
Costochondritis isn’t permanent, but it can last for several months. Sometimes it can return again after it heals.
There isn’t any one cause of costochondritis. Some of the causes might be preventable, while others might not be. For example, you can do your best to avoid exercising too much or coughing too hard. But, you may not be able to avoid costochondritis caused by an injury to your chest during a car crash.
Injury and infection, the common causes of costochondritis, can’t be prevented with medications.
Diet doesn’t prevent costochondritis. There’s nothing you can eat or drink that can reduce your risk.
You may have costochondritis for several months. It’s not permanent or harmful pain. Treatments can help relieve your symptoms.
Yes, costochondritis generally goes away on its own. But it can take several months. Take good care of yourself and get enough rest until your symptoms go away.
Costochondritis shouldn’t prevent you from doing your normal activities, although the sharp or heavy pain may make you uncomfortable.
Yes, costochondritis can come back after it heals. This is called a relapse.
See your healthcare provider immediately if you’re experiencing chest pain.
If you’ve been diagnosed with costochondritis, contact your healthcare provider if your pain gets worse or doesn’t get any better with treatment.
Always go to the emergency department if you have severe chest pain.
Also, call emergency services or go to the emergency department right away if you experience any of the following problems:
Chest pain can be frightening because it can be related to serious conditions. Some cancers, like lung cancer, can cause chest pain. Like costochondritis, the pain people experience when they have lung cancer gets worse when they cough. But, costochondritis isn’t a type of cancer.
Don’t hesitate to go to the emergency department if you have severe chest pain, though. You’ll want to know the cause of the pain so that you can get the best treatment.
Costochondritis and Tietze’s syndrome are sometimes confused because they have similar symptoms. Two differences between them are:
Both costochondritis and COVID-19 cause chest pain. If your chest pain is severe, you should go to the emergency department. Your healthcare provider will figure out whether the cause of your chest pain is costochondritis or something else.
No, costochondritis and fibromyalgia are different conditions. People with fibromyalgia have long-lasting (chronic) muscle and joint pain all over their bodies. Costochondritis only causes pain in your chest, which sometimes travels to your back and stomach.
Gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD) or chronic acid reflux is where your stomach acid flows up your esophagus and into your mouth. It causes heartburn, chest pain and acid indigestion. While costochondritis causes an aching, heavy or sharp pain, GERD is a burning pain.
Costochondritis shouldn’t last long. Tell your healthcare provider if your chest pain lasts longer than a few weeks.
There’s no special way to sleep that helps with the pain from costochondritis. You may have to experiment with sleeping in different positions to see if lying one way or another is less painful.
Yes, the pain of costochondritis can sometimes spread (radiate) to your back. It may feel sharp or aching.
Nausea is not a symptom of costochondritis. Intense, aching or sharp chest pain are symptoms of costochondritis. The pain may get worse because of:
Remember that you should go to the emergency department if you have severe chest pain.
Difficulty breathing is not a symptom of costochondritis, but it’s understandable if it feels difficult because of the chest pain, especially when that pain gets worse because of a deep breath or a cough. Go to the hospital immediately if you’re having trouble breathing. This is an emergency.
A note from Cleveland Clinic
Chest pain may be a very scary symptom. If your chest pain is severe, you should go to the emergency department to find out what’s causing it. It might be costochondritis or it might be a heart attack or some other serious condition. If it’s costochondritis, there’s no reason to worry. Costochondritis is a short-term swelling of the cartilage. Treatments are available to help reduce the pain associated with costochondritis while you heal.
Last reviewed by a Cleveland Clinic medical professional on 11/12/2021.
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