What Is Chest Wall Pain?
If you suffer from chest wall pain, it can be a scary experience. This is because some types of chest pain mimic the same symptoms of a heart attack or other heart condition. However, there are some types of musculoskeletal chest pain that aren’t related to a heart condition at all. In this article we’ll talk about the causes of this pain as well as some chest wall pain treatments that could work for you.
Symptoms of chest pain and discomfort are among the most common reasons provided for medical visits around the world. Further, it has been estimated that around 7.16 million visits are made annually to the emergency department due to chest pain. Between 1% and 3% of all visits to a primary care provider are actually attributed to this problem.
The symptoms of chest wall pain can be achy, sharp, or even pressure-like. In many cases, patients will report that their pain worsens upon:
- Moving their upper body
- Taking deep breaths
- Engaging in physical exertion
The most common form of this type of pain is costochondral pain, which is an inflammation of the cartilage connecting a rib to the breastbone.
What Is Costochondritis Pain?
Interestingly, nearly 30% of patients with complaints of chest pain are ultimately diagnosed with costochondritis
. Pain that occurs within the costosternal and costochondral regions of the anterior chest wall, in particular, is referred to as costochondritis. Costochondritis is also sometimes called:
- Costochondral pain
- Costosternal syndrome
- Costosternal chondrodynia
Patients of advancing age (i.e., 40 years of age and up) and who are of Hispanic origin are considered to be at an increased risk for pain associated with costochondritis.
The symptoms of costochondritis tend to be localized to the costal cartilage along the second through the fifth costochondral joints, particularly within the third and fourth ribs. Nonetheless, symptoms of chest wall pain may occur along any of the seven costochondral junctions. Moreover, these symptoms may also radiate out from the anterior chest wall to the neck or arm. It is not uncommon for patients to also report tenderness within the area.
What Is The Cause Of Chest Wall Pain?
While reports of this type of pain tend to be incredibly common, the underlying cause for the condition is not completely understood.
While it is not uncommon for the precise source of chest wall pain to remain unknown, some possible causes of costochondritis include:
- Injury or trauma: Pain within the area of the chest wall may emerge as the result of a direct blow or injury to the area.
- Arthritis: Some evidence suggests that symptoms of costochondritis are associated with degenerative joint conditions, such as osteoarthritis or rheumatoid arthritis.
- Physical strain: Symptoms of costochondritis have been linked with periods of heavy lifting, extreme physical exertion, or even severe coughing, which likely places excessive strain to the underlying soft tissue of the chest.
- Infection: The various joints of the rib cage can become infected from fungi, bacteria, or a virus (e.g., syphilis or tuberculosis). These infections can cause irritation and inflammation of the area, which can lead to symptoms of pain and discomfort.
- Tumor: Symptoms of pain can emerge as the result of tumor. In fact, cancerous tumors may spread to the joints of the rib cage from other nearby areas of the body, such as the lung, thyroid, or breast.
Typically, pain associated with costochondritis emerges as the result of irritation and inflammation of the soft tissue that joins the ribs and the breastbone. Further, previous studies have indicated that this type of pain tends to occur more frequently among populations of women.
Diagnosing Chest Wall Pain
Your pain doctor may be able to diagnose costochondritis following a thorough physical examination; however, advanced imaging techniques should be employed to rule out any other potential sources for your symptoms.
Physical examination of chest wall pain will generally include gentle palpation of the:
- Posterior, anterior, and lateral thoracic regions
- The thoracic and lumbar spine
- Cervical spine
Any areas of tenderness are noted and better localized by palpation with a single digit. Your pain doctor will examine the movement of your rib cage through the use of deep breathing exercises. Movement of the upper extremities is generally assessed by moving the arm, while they also observe for pain, stiffness, and limits to range of motion.
How Long Does Chest Wall Pain Last?
In most cases, symptoms of pain and discomfort within the chest wall that are associated with costochondritis resolve on their own. The actual course of the condition depends on a number of factors that can vary widely from patient to patient. A portion of patients will report that their pain and discomfort resolved within several weeks, while others may experience more persistent symptoms.
Nearly all cases of costochondritis are expected to resolve within one year. Acute cases may linger for a few days, but they may last up to several weeks. If your pain is due to a minor injury or trauma, the pain should resolve using at-home treatments discussed below. If you’ve suffered from chest wall pain for more than three months, it is considered a chronic form of pain. In this case, it’s important to talk to your doctor about ways to find relief. Chronic conditions generally fare worse the longer treatment is delayed.
You should talk to your doctor immediately, though, if you experience any of the following symptoms:
- Breathing issues
- Pain that is still severe or worsening after a few days
- Signs of infection, such as sweating, redness, or increased swelling
Signs of a heart attack that requires immediate medical attention include:
- Persistent chest pain
- Left arm pain
- Generalized chest pain that doesn’t have a localized source of pain
Women, however, typically experience heart attack symptoms differently. For example, women are more likely to experience secondary symptoms like back or jaw pain or nausea. Call 911 if you suffer from:
- Uncomfortable pressure, squeezing, or fullness in the center of your chest
- Pain or discomfort in one or both arms, your back, neck, jaw, or stomach
- Shortness of breath
- Sweat, nausea, or lightheadedness
Treatments For Chest Wall Pain