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Sternum Pain

The sternum is also known as the breast or chest bone, being located in the central part of the chest. The main purpose of the sternum are to protect the vital organs behind it (meaning the heart and airways) and also to connect to the ribs through the rib cartilage, thus forming the rib cage. Sternum pain and be acute or chronic and, depending on its intensity, frequency and duration, it might require you to visit a specialized doctor.

There are many medical conditions that can lead to the appearance of sternum pain but the most important thing is not to confuse it with chest pain. The sternum pain is coming from the bone or joints but not from the circulatory system, as it happens with chest pains. Often times, the sternum pain appears after an injury and it can be quite sharp or intense, the pressure applied on the bone only making it worse. Plus, it might be accompanies by certain sounds. Let’s find out more information about the symptoms of sternum pain.

Symptoms of Sternum Pain

sternum pain

Depending on the underlying medical condition, these are the most often encountered symptoms in cases of sternum pain:

  • Extremely intense pain in case of fracture of the sternum (a sternum that is broken into several pieces can be very painful)
  • Pain radiating to the sternum in case of trauma to the collarbone (these are severe fractures affecting all of the surrounding area)
  • Mild or severe pain can appear in case of dislocated sternoclavicular joints through various injuries
  • Tenderness, pain aggravated by movement and breathing (the pain subsides when there is no movement) appear in case of inflamed sternums
  • A burning chest pain, radiating to the sternum appears in the situation of heartburn. This pain will appear after a meal or at night, being made worse by bending or laying down
  • Tenderness, pain aggravated by movement and made worse by coughing and deep breathing appear in the situation of costochondritis. Basically, the joint between the upper rib and cartilage is inflamed, leading to sternum pain as well
  • Pain aggravated by breathing, dry coughing, shortness of breath, chills, fever and appetite loss appear in the case of pleura inflammation. The pleura lines the inner walls of the chest, being inflamed in several respiratory conditions

Causes of Sternum Pain

As you have probably seen above, there are several medical conditions in which sternum pain can appear:

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Musculoskeletal causes

  • Sternum fractures
  • Collarbone trauma
  • Injury to the sternoclavicular joints, with additional dislocation
  • Sternum inflammation
  • Costochondritis
  • Muscle tears

Respiratory causes

  • Pleurisy
  • Asthma
  • Bronchitis
  • COPD
  • Tuberculosis
  • Pneumonia

Abdominal and gastrointestinal causes

  • GERD
  • Heartburn
  • Pancreatitis
  • Peptic ulcers

Cardiovascular causes

  • Heart valve disease
  • Cardiomyopathy
  • Coronary artery disease
  • Myocarditis
  • Pericarditis
  • Aortic dissection

Other causes, such as

  • Rib injury
  • Breast cancer
  • Bone cancer
  • Chondrosarcoma
  • Osteomyelitis
  • Excessive effort
  • Excessive training
  • Anxiety attack

Treatment for Sternum pain

The treatment depends on the underlying condition. These are the most common courses of treatment:

  • Analgesics and anti-inflammatory medication can help with pain or inflammation.
  • Intercostal nerve blocks are recommended in more severe cases of costochondritis, as a local anesthetic will be injected around the painful area, in order to block the intercostal nerve responsible for the pain.
  • Transcutaneous electrical nerve stimulation
  • Acupuncture
  • For digestive causes – medication for heartburn or GERD
  • Breathing therapy and psychological counseling for anxiety attack
  • Surgical intervention for muscle tears
  • Physical therapy for musculoskeletal problems
    • Flexibility training
    • Weight training
    • Mobility training
  • Massage for tissue mobility after traumas or fractures
  • Ultrasound therapy for the reduction of muscle spasms
  • Antibiotics for respiratory conditions, such as pneumonia or pleurisy
  • Immobilization in case of sternoclavicular joints dislocation
  • Surgery in case of collarbone fractures
  • Cortisone injections in case of severe cases of sternum inflammation
  • Anti-allergy medication, broncho-dilators and inhalers for asthma
  • Specific medication for cardiac problems, such as beta-blockers and cardiac surgery in case of emergency situations, such as aortic dissection
  • Chemotherapy and radiotherapy in case of bone cancer
  • Surgery, followed by chemotherapy and radiotherapy in case of breast cancer

How to relieve sternum pain

These are the most common measures you can benefit from in order to relieve sternum pain:

  • Warm applications for pain
  • Ice applications for inflammation
  • Stretching exercises for muscle contractions and spasms
  • Avoiding over-straining physical activity and, if you do exercise, make sure to get plenty of rest afterward, allowing the body to recover.
  • Quitting smoking can improve respiratory conditions and thus sternum pain
  • Adopting a good posture can prevent sternum pain. Keeping the shoulders forward and the back in a slouch position will lead to the joints between the ribs and the sternum to become stiff and thus painful.
  • A lymphatic drainage massage can be especially helpful after breast cancer surgery, as it can help drain the excess lymph gathered in the recently operated area.
  • Avoid drinking alcohol and eating foods that are too spicy or too greasy, as these can cause heartburn and GERD.
  • Avoid drinking coffee in large quantities, especially if you do not drink enough water (coffee leads to dehydration and it can worsen sternum pain) or if you are an anxious person.

As you can see for yourself, the condition in which sternum pain appears are extremely diverse and, if you want to get rid of this upsetting symptom, you have to treat the underlying condition first. Just make sure to remember how important physical therapy actually is and how much it can help you on the long run. This is especially valid for sternum pain caused by musculoskeletal causes but it can also be useful for other situations, as it will increase mobility, allowing you to become more flexible. There is no better prevention for sternum pain than physical therapy.


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