Last updated:

Reviewed by:

Dr Bryony Henderson

, Lead GP at Livi

Medically reviewed

Costochondritis is inflammation around the breast, which causes uncomfortable chest pain and swelling. Read more about the symptoms and when to seek help.

What is costochondritis?

Costochondritis is the medical term for inflammation of the cartilage that joins the ribs of the chest to the breastbone, also known as the costochondral joint.

Cartilage is present in many places of the body, such as the nose, ears and joints. The cartilage in the ribs acts as a shock absorber to protect the chest from hard blows.

What are the symptoms of costochondritis?

Typically, you feel a sharp chest pain when moving, lying down, taking a deep breath in or when touching the area. Some women may feel it as breast pain.

Rarely, people will also notice a lump on their chest. This is similar to a condition called Tietze syndrome, where the inflammation of the cartilage also causes swelling.

The pain will usually go away by itself within a few weeks without causing long-term problems. But worrying about chest pain may also cause anxiety, which can be another cause of chest pain and can make the condition worse.

What causes costochondritis?

Although scientists are still unsure of the exact cause of costochondritis, there are several factors that increase the chance of developing it. These include:

  • Excessive coughing

  • Excessive exercise

  • Injury

  • Infections

  • Covid-19

  • Advanced age (through normal wear and tear)

Inflammation is the cause of the chest pain, which is the healing process that allows our body to protect itself and fight infection, injury and irritation.

What causes costochondritis to flare up?

Anything day-to-day that stretches your chest will cause pain in the area, like coughing, exercise, reaching a high cupboard, lying down. Make sure to rest and avoid straining your chest.

How is costochondritis diagnosed?

A GP will first ask about your pain and have a gentle feel of your chest.  Your doctor may carry out some tests to exclude other, more serious conditions. These tests include:

  • Electrocardiogram (ECG)

  • Chest X-ray

  • Blood tests 

If the test results are normal, your doctor will offer advice to help you manage costochondritis at home.

How is costochondritis treated?

As costochondritis is not a serious condition, treatment is focused on helping ease chest pain.

Mild painkillers

If the pain is mild to moderate and does not interfere with your daily life, over-the-counter medication can be used, such as:

  • Paracetamol or aspirin 

  • Anti-inflammatories like ibuprofen

Steroid injections

If you cannot take anti-inflammatories, or the pain does not improve, contact your GP to discuss whether a steroid injection may be helpful for you. These are very effective injections given in the chest area to reduce inflammation and swelling.

Some GPs are able to carry out these injections but you may need to be referred to a specialist if not. 

Self-care for costochondritis pain

  • Apply hot or cold compresses to relieve inflammation

  • Try slow breathing exercises to improve the way your ribs move when taking deep breaths

  • Do light exercises and stretching to relax the chest muscles, which can help to reduce pain and improve mobility. These exercises include pectoral stretches and scapula squeezes.

As exercise and chest stress can aggravate costochondritis, try to avoid any sudden movements or stretching, especially when the pain is at its worst.

How long does costochondritis last?

In most people, costochondritis goes away within a few days to weeks, but it can sometimes be painful for months. It also may sometimes return after getting better.

When should I speak to a doctor?

It is important to seek immediate medical help if you are feeling short of breath, tired, dizzy, and if the pain moves down your arm or up your neck or is worse after exercising. There may be another more serious cause of your pain, such as a heart attack or a pneumothorax.

How can Livi help?

A Livi doctor will ask you questions about your symptoms. They’ll make an individual assessment, recommend a treatment or refer you to a specialist if needed.

Last updated:
Reviewed by:
Dr Bryony Henderson, Lead GP at Livi