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Chest Pain: Is It Costochondritis?

Medical Author: Melissa Conrad Stoppler, MD
Medical Editor: Jay W. Marks, MD

Pain in the chest wall around the breastbone (or sternum) is the most characteristic feature of the condition known as costochondritis. Medically, the term chondritis refers to inflammation of any cartilage in the body. Costochondritis refers specifically to inflammation of the cartilage that joins the ribs to the breastbone (called costal cartilages). The chest pain of costochondritis sometimes is severe.

Costochondritis usually, but not always, involves one side of the breastbone. Sometimes the pain can extend to the shoulder or arm on the involved side. When costochondritis is accompanied by swelling of the areas surrounding the cartilage, the condition is called Tietze syndrome. In Tietze syndrome, the swollen area of the inflamed cartilage may be tender to the touch, and the skin overlying the cartilage may be reddened.

Costochondritis is most common in people between 20 and 40 years of age. In most cases, doctors do not know why the condition develops. Trauma to the chest wall may lead to costochondritis, and it also is believed that viral infections, particularly upper respiratory infections, may cause costochondritis. The condition also can occur as a feature of more generalized diseases of inflammation such as certain forms of arthritis, fibromyalgia, and inflammatory bowel disease.

It is important to remember that any type of chest pain should be evaluated by a doctor to exclude the possibility of diseases of the heart or lungs, and the diagnosis of costochondritis is made only after these more serious causes of chest pain have been excluded.

If you develop costochondritis, your doctor will advise you to rest and avoid participating in any activities that aggravate the pain. While there is no specific treatment for costochondritis, nonsteroidal antiinflammatory drugs (or NSAIDs, such as ibuprofen) often are prescribed to reduce the pain and inflammation. In Tietze syndrome, the application of ice packs may help reduce the swelling. In severe cases, your doctor may recommend cortisone injections or lidocaine (a local anesthetic) patches. The symptoms of costochondritis generally resolve gradually over a period of four to eight weeks.

For more in-depth information please read the Costochondritis article.


Last Editorial Review: 5/25/2007







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