What is an intercostal muscle strain?

Table of Contents

  1. Signs and symptoms
  2. Intercostal muscle strain vs. other upper body pains
  3. Common causes
  4. When to see a doctor
  5. Diagnosis
  6. Treatment
  7. Physical therapy
  8. Outlook and prevention

Symptoms

Causes

When to see a doctor

Diagnosis

Treatment

Outlook

Intercostal muscle strain is an injury affecting the muscles between two or more ribs.

The intercostal muscles have different layers that are attached to the ribs to help build the chest wall and assist in breathing. When an intercostal muscle gets twisted, strained, or stretched too far, it can tear, causing intercostal muscle strain.

In this article, we examine the signs of an intercostal muscle strain, and how to tell one apart from other upper body pains and injuries. We also look at the causes and treatment options for these strains.

Signs and symptoms

Man holding his upper back in pain and has intercostal muscle strainSymptoms of intercostal muscle strain may include sharp upper back pain, tension in muscles, muscle spasms, and severe and sudden pain.

The signs and symptoms of an intercostal muscle strain can differ slightly, depending on their cause. Symptoms may include:

sharp upper back and rib pain

severe and sudden pain, particularly if caused by a blow to the chest or back

gradual worsening pain after repetitive movement, such as rowing, swimming, or other physical exercises

stiffness and tension in muscles, causing upper back pain

muscle rigidity when bending or twisting the upper body

worsening pain when coughing, sneezing, or breathing in deeply

spasms of the intercostal muscles

tenderness in the area between the ribs

Intercostal muscle strain vs. other upper body pains

The upper back is rarely injured because it is relatively immobile. If this area is the cause of pain, it is often due to long-term poor posture. It can also be due to a severe injury that has weakened the sturdiness of the upper spine, such as a car accident.

Pain due to upper back injuries is usually felt as a sharp, burning pain in one spot. The pain can spread to the shoulder, neck, or elsewhere in the upper body, and it may come and go.

Intercostal muscle strain is almost always the result of some event, such as overexertion or injury. In contrast, the initial source of pain from pneumonia or other lung disorders is difficult to pinpoint.

If the specific area of discomfort can be located, such as between the ribs, this indicates the pain is not coming from the lungs or the upper back. Lung pain is usually described as sharp and spreading outward.

When a rib is fractured, the pain is usually much more severe than that of intercostal muscle strain.

The following symptoms may signal a rib fracture:

feeling breathless

a protrusion or a sharp stabbing sensation in the rib area

an area around the ribs that is extremely tender to touch

A fractured rib is a medical emergency requiring immediate attention.

Common causes

sports injury to the ribs may cause intercostal muscle strainA direct blow to the ribcage may cause intercostal muscle strain.

Routine activities are not usually the cause of intercostal muscle strain. These strains most often occur as the result of an injury or overexertion of the muscles.

Common causes include:

a direct blow to the rib cage, such as from a fall or car accident

an impact blow from contact sports, such as hockey or football

twisting the torso beyond its normal range of motion

twisting while lifting weights

forceful twisting, such as from golf or tennis

twisting from specific yoga postures or dance positions

reaching overhead, for example, when painting a ceiling

lifting any heavy object above shoulder height

prolonged overhead reaching

repetitive forceful movements, such as hitting a tennis ball

A sudden increase in physical activity can also lead to an intercostal muscle strain. This is the case particularly when muscles are weakened by a lack of exercise or poor posture.

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When to see a doctor

The time to see the doctor depends on the severity of the injury. A mild injury may result in a low level of pain and stiffness that goes away within a few days.

It is advisable to see a doctor if the pain is severe, lasts for more than a few days, or interferes with sleep or daily activities.

If a traumatic injury, such as a fall or an automobile accident, has occurred, or breathing is difficult, immediate medical attention is needed.


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