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What is sternum pain?

Sternum pain usually occurs after an injury to the chest area. It is important differentiate between sternum pain and chest pain.

While sternum pain is typically not an emergency, chest pain affects the circulatory system and should be treated as a medical emergency.

Seek professional medical help if you think you are having chest pain.

Sternum pain is caused by the breastbone and the pain can radiate into your chest. Applying pressure to your breastbone, or twisting and bending your body will make your pain get worse.

What causes sternum pain?

The main causes of sternum pain are:

  • Costochondritis - an inflammation of the costal cartilage. Usually affects the fourth, fifth and sixth ribs. Pain and tenderness are common, while swelling of the joints is very rare.
  • Cracked or fractured rib - pain will get worse with deep breathing and if you bend or twist your body. If more than one rib is cracked or fractured the pain will be more severe and you will probably have more difficulties with breathing.
  • Heartburn - can easily be diagnosed as a heart attack by mistake. The pain may radiate throughout the chest.
  • Joint damage - rheumatoid arthritis, trauma or any other cause that will damage the joints of the chest cage will lead to sternum pain.
  • Inflammation - some serious inflammations like pleuritis, pneumonia, tuberculosis can cause pain in the sternum.
  • Tietze syndrome - usually affects the second and third ribs. It is an inflammation of the costal cartilage, just like costochondritis. Pain, stiffness and even swelling are present.
  • Panic attacks - in this case, the sternum pain can feel like a heart attack and in some cases it can be even mistakenly diagnosed. It is important to know and to avoid the triggers that can lead to panic attacks.

How is sternum pain treated?

The treatment of sternum pain depends on the cause.

Costochondritis is treated with ice or heat packs applied locally to relieve the symptoms.

If the cause of the sternum pain is an anxiety attack, it is important to know how to calm yourself and how to avoid any stressful situation that can trigger an anxiety attack. Focus on your breathing and you will see that your heart rate will go back to normal after a while.

In the case of trauma or a cracked and even fractured rib, seek medical help. Your doctor will probably order some examinations like an X-Ray, CT or an MRI to visualize the fracture. A fractured rib requires proper treatment, because dislodged bone pieces can lead to serious complications like damage to the large blood vessels and lungs.

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