Costochondritis is the inflammation of the cartilage that connects your ribs to your breast bone (the sternum). Cartilage is a connective tissue that covers the joints and acts as a shock absorber. Costochondritis is a type of chest wall pain that has no clear cause. It usually goes away by itself after a few weeks, with simple pain relief and rest. Unfortunately it can come back.
The exact cause of costochondritis is largely unknown but it can be in response to an infection or an injury to the chest wall. It can also occur from straining, over-exertion from exercise, severe coughing bouts or wear and tear over time.
If you have chest pain, you should discuss it with your doctor. Chest pain is important to seek immediate medical attention to rule out the possibility of a heart attack: any symptoms of sweating, shortness of breath, pain radiating to the arm or jaw are more associated with a heart attack. Pain when pressing the area, moving, and feeling more like a muscle pain are more likely to be costochondritis, which is not an emergency, but your doctor or emergency department can distinguish between them.
Your doctor will take a history from you and examine your chest area, which is usually tender when pressed or with certain movements. They will consider your medical history and medication and although there is no specific test to diagnose costochondritis, your doctor may do some tests and investigations (like bloods, ECG, chest x ray) to rule out serious causes. If these are all normal or all the symptoms clearly point towards costochondritis, then the diagnosis will be made.
It is important to try and rest your chest area in order to speed up the recovery process. This may mean taking time away from exercise or from work if your job requires a lot of movement or strenuous lifting. You can do simple things at home like applying heat to soothe the area and take simple painkillers like ibuprofen or paracetamol to manage the pain and inflammation. If simple medication is not helping or your symptoms are persisting for several weeks, your doctor may recommend you see a physiotherapist for stretching exercises and even a specialist health professional who may consider steroid injections to reduce joint inflammation. TENS machines can also be purchased and may work on an individual basis for pain relief. This works by sending a mild electric current to the affected area in efforts to distract pain signals coming from the brain.