Managing Costochondritis: How To Reduce Chronic Pain

Costochondritis: if you never heard about this condition until you were diagnosed with it, you're not alone. Costochondritis, which can cause severe chest pain, is not necessarily a household word; however, it accounts for 13-36% of chest pain cases in adults. Also called chest wall pain, costosternal syndrome, and costosternal chondrodynia, episodes of this disorder may recur for the rest of your life. It's important to know how to manage it so that you can live life to the fullest.

Costochondritis: what it is

Costochondritis is an inflammation of the cartilage that connects the ribs to your breastbone. It usually occurs on the right side of your chest, near your heart. It can be caused by arthritis, joint infection, physical injury, or muscle strain, but most cases occur without apparent cause.

Symptoms of costochondritis include

  • tenderness on the upper left side of your chest, as if you have a bruise

  • chest pain, similar to a heart attack (NOTE: if you are having chest pain, seek medical attention--do not self-diagnose this disorder)

  • pain that intensifies when you laugh, cough, or take deep breaths

It is important to have a full cardiac workup so as to make sure your chest pain is not caused by heart disease. There is no diagnostic test for costochondritis; however, ruling out cardiac and pulmonary problems helps identify it through the process of elimination.

Women, especially those over 40, are most likely to develop this condition, although doctors are not sure why. Costochondritis episodes can last for weeks or months, then go away only to recur at a later time.

Because there is no known treatment for this disorder, it is important to implement lifestyle changes that will help manage the pain when it occurs.

Costochondritis: how to manage

There are various ways you can take charge of your life to minimize the effects of costochondritis.

  1. Diet. You can eat foods that are natural anti-inflammatory agents, such as salmon, pineapple, walnuts, and a variety of oils (extra-virgin olive oil is the most popular). Strawberries have powerful anti-inflammatory qualities, so order up those smoothies!

  2. Vitamins and supplements. Costochondritis may be linked to Vitamin D deficiency, which is easily remedied with extra time in the sunshine and an over the counter supplement. You can also try ginger root, bromelain, vitamin C, evening primrose oil, serrapeptase, and noni fruit. Because costochondritis is on the spectrum of autoimmune disorders such as fibromyalgia, consider taking immune-strengthening herbs such as echinacea and grapefruit seed extract. Of course, check with your doctor before taking any supplements to make sure they do not interact with medication or other medical conditions.

  3. Exercise. While you may need to start slow, exercise can be beneficial in combating costochondritis. Avoid any weight lifting or stretches that aggravate your upper chest muscles. Walking, swimming, and light stretches are your best bets.

  4. Lifestyle changes. If you have job duties that aggravate the muscles in your chest, such as lifting or pushing, talk to your employer about possible adjustments. Also, if you are used to carrying your purse or packages on your left side you will need to switch to your right side.

  5. Rest. Costochondritis episodes can occur during times of stress, so keep in mind what commitments you can suspend if needed. You may even need bedrest during times of acute pain, so give yourself permission to call out sick or back out of social obligations if you aren't feeling well.

Along with these measures, your doctor may also direct you to take an anti-inflammatory medication, such as an NSAID, to help reduce your chest pain. Cold/hot packs can be helpful as well.  

Thankfully, this condition does respond to symptomatic treatment. By implementing the above measures, you will be able to manage your costochondritis episodes successfully. Should you be looking for more ideas, click here for more information.