Pain in intercostal muscle

Pain in the intercostal muscle is more common than expected. Most people are not aware of the intercostal muscles, but when there is pain it is suddenly clear that they are present. The cause is often inflammation, but irritation, a tear or a bruise of the intercostal muscle can also cause pain. The pain is palpable in the chest and is therefore often confused with an impending heart attack.

Intercostal muscles

Pain in the intercostal muscle(s) is common. This is palpable as chest pain. If you look up “chest pain” on the internet, you will soon end up with a heart attack or myocardial infarction. Fortunately, chest pain is not always that serious. The pain can also come from the intercostal muscles.
The rib cage (chest) consists of 24 ribs. There are 12 on each side. A small number of people have 1 pair of ribs more or less. The ribs are connected to each other by intercostal muscles. These muscles ensure that the ribs can move relative to each other. This movement is necessary for breathing, coughing and sneezing. The rib cage is able to expand (inhale) and contract (exhale). Intercostal muscles are small muscles that lie exactly between the ribs. hence the name. These are muscles that we cannot control ourselves, but go along with the movements we make by filling or emptying the lungs.

Pain in intercostal muscle

Many people are completely unaware of the presence of these intercostal muscles. Until pain complaints arise. These complaints are noticeable as chest pain. The pain often occurs on one side, left or right. But pain on both sides can also occur when multiple intercostal muscles are affected. Sometimes fear or anxiety arises when the pain is located on the left side of the heart. This is logical, we all want to take good care of our hearts and pain around the heart area is therefore frightening. Yet there is a clear difference: pain originating from the heart itself mainly manifests itself as a pressing band on the chest and pain in the center, sometimes radiating to the left shoulder and/or left arm. Moreover, there is shortness of breath involved. With a painful intercostal muscle there is no shortness of breath. However, caution is advised: some people panic when they experience pain around the heart area, resulting in hyperventilation (palpable as shortness of breath).

Bruised intercostal muscle

An intercostal muscle can become bruised. This is mainly due to a fall, a blow or a bump to the rib cage. Usually one of the ribs is bruised, but an intercostal muscle can also be accidentally hit or bruised. There is clearly pain around a rib. The pain is often clearly identifiable.

Torn muscle

Like all other muscles, an intercostal muscle can also tear. Sports are often the cause of this, which puts more pressure on the ribs and prevents the ribs from expanding properly. The tension on the intercostal muscle increases and can eventually tear. We often see this with tension and stress, which increases muscle tension.


An inflamed intercostal muscle does not always have a clear cause. However, it is more common in Tietze’s syndrome. Other underlying diseases may also be the cause. An inflammation of the intercostal muscle is clearly palpable as chest pain. The painful spot is not always easy to identify because the pain can radiate.

Healing and treatment

The annoying thing about an inflamed, torn, bruised or irritated intercostal muscle is the fact that it is virtually impossible to treat. The intercostal muscle will have to heal on its own. Sometimes anti-inflammatories and/or painkillers are prescribed. This is especially done when the patient is inclined to breathe superficially when experiencing a lot of pain. This can result in pneumonia. Many patients also use their chest minimally due to the pain. This causes the muscles to stiffen even more, creating more muscle tension, resulting in more and more unpleasant complaints.
Pain in the intercostal muscle can be felt during breathing, during exertion and during sports, as well as when coughing. If you experience serious complaints from this, visit your doctor. If you have a cough, he or she can prescribe a medicine that dissolves the mucus or suppresses the coughing stimulus (in the case of a non-productive cough). In case of breathing difficulties it is important to take pain relief. Pneumonia must be prevented at all times. Pain during sports and exertion is caused by the chest expanding more. The intercostal muscle responds to this. More pain is felt. Try to temporarily reduce this effort or sport. Pain means taking rest.
Many people complain about a long recovery. This is true, an intercostal muscle sometimes has difficulty recovering and this can take several months or even several years. There are people who have been living with pain in the intercostal muscle for more than 20 years. This is because continuous work is required of the intercostal muscle during breathing, which sometimes makes healing very slow and difficult. Other people get rid of the pain quickly. This depends on the location of the intercostal muscle: some muscles have to endure more pressure than other muscles.

read more

  • Tietze syndrome: chest pain
  • Heart attack: every second counts
  • Chest pain, cause and treatment
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