Treatment For Intercostal Muscle Strain: Causes And Symptoms

The muscles located between ribs are known as intercostal muscles. There are twelve intercostal muscles each attached between two ribs on either side of rib cage. The function of these muscles is to protect the chest silhouette, facilitate easy contraction and relaxation of chest wall for breathing, and stabilization of chest. Intercostal muscle strain is a condition that causes chest pain while breathing, moving the upper body, twisting, coughing sneezing etc.

Strain to any muscles occur when it gets suddenly pulled, stretched beyond its limit or is torn partially. In case of intercostal muscle strain, the same thing occurs.

The intercostal muscles may get torn, stretched or pulled suddenly due to rapid upper body movement, twisting, sudden bending, loud coughing and sneezing, playing tennis or basketball etc. The pain although discomforting, vanishes after a period of time on its own or with medications and physiotherapy.

What Causes Intercostal Muscle Strain?

Intercostal myalgia or muscle strain is common reason for chest pain in majority of people. Almost 50 percent of musculoskeletal pain in chest region arises from intercostal muscles. Intercostal muscles are located between the ribs and are part of protective chest silhouette.

Intercostal muscles are divided into three layers, the external, internal and innermost muscles. When any of the layers of these muscles gets strained, it can lead to pain and difficulty in breathing.

A muscle strain occurs when it is suddenly pulled, gets partially torn or stretched. In intercostal muscle strain, the muscle between ribs may get pulled, strained or partially torn. It can occur due to several reasons. Sudden movement of upper part of body is the main cause for such strain. For example sudden twisting of upper body during a dance, playing game or sudden bending while playing sports such as basketball, tennis etc can cause strain and stretching of the intercostal muscles beyond its limit. The injury to the muscles can lead to inflammation and pain in the chest.

Following activities are prone to cause intercostal muscle strain:

  • Loud and sudden sneezing, coughing.
  • Lifting heavy weight.
  • Suddenly twisting upper body or bending upper body.
  • Extending the hands beyond certain point for reaching objects etc.
  • Playing games such as tennis, basketball, cricket, rowing, skiing, etc.
  • Trauma on chest wall, usually a blunt injury.

Symptoms Of Intercostal Muscle Strain

Intercostal muscle strain typically produces pain in chest. Here are its prominent symptoms that may help to distinguish it from other types of chest pain:

  • Pain is sudden in onset after strenuous activity.
  • Sharp and shooting pain in chest which is aggravated while bending, getting up from reclining position etc.
  • Tenderness over the area of pain.
  • Deep inhalation and exhalation causes pain and discomfort in chest.
  • Shallow breathing due to pain.
  • The strained muscle feels tight while performing certain activities such as extending hand, twisting upper body or breathing heavily.
  • The torn muscle may become inflamed and the area affected may appear slightly swollen.

Often these symptoms of chest pain can be similar to symptom of more serious disease, may be of chest or heart. Hence if you are suffering from such pain, consult your doctor to exclude serious illnesses of heart and lungs.

Diagnosis And Treatment Of Intercostal Muscle Strain

Clinical examination of the patient and medical history usually helps the doctor to diagnose intercostals muscle strain. X-ray of chest and ECG are beneficial to exclude serious lung disease and heart ailment. Once the diagnosis is made, the next step is to alleviate the symptoms.

Usually intercostals muscle strain or intercostals myalgia is self limited disease which over a period of time heals on its own. However, a person suffering from it needs treatment to alleviate pain and discomfort.

  • Over the counter muscle relaxant and anti inflammatory medicines will help to reduce pain temporarily. However, these medicines must be taken as prescribed by the physician as they have several side effects.
  • Alternate hot and cold fomentation of the area affected. It encourages blood circulation to the damaged muscles and enhances the healing process.
  • Avoid activities that require heavy breathing. Take medicines if you are having cough.
  • Use braces and splint over the affected area.
  • After few days when pain is reduced, soft tissue massage will help to improve movement of upper body and increase its range of motion.
  • Gentle stretching exercise will help to strengthen and muscles. Exercise such as side bend is beneficial.
  • Homeopathic medicines Arnica, Rhustox, Ruta are effective in reducing pain produced in intercostal muscle strain.

Intercostal muscle strain recovers in 4 to 6 weeks period if patient follows proper treatment and physiotherapy and if the muscle strain is mild. In case if the muscle is severely strained or torn, it may take 3 to 6 months for complete recovery.