Intercostal Muscle Strain: Symptoms and Treatment

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Intercostal Muscle Strain

Intercostal muscles are muscles between the ribs that help you breathe properly and stabilize the upper body. A strain usually happens when your muscles are partially torn, stretched, and pulled. Oftentimes mistaken as upper back pain, intercostal muscle strain is different. While back pain is described as sharp, and burning which usually spreads from the neck to the shoulders and can be caused by poor posture for a long period, intercostal muscle strain is caused by a trauma in the muscles by overexertion which makes it weak. In addition, while back pain can usually be experienced by most adults, intercostal muscle strain doesn’t usually happen with your daily activities, however, you can pull, stretch, and strain your intercostal muscles in many different ways. Some examples that could cause this are car accidents which directly traumatize the muscles, torso twisting for a long time from your workouts, reaching a certain object for a long period, falling, and coughing and sneezing.

Muscle strains cause chest pains and difficulty in breathing. According to a study, 21 to 49 percent of musculoskeletal chest pain is caused by intercostal muscle strain.  

How to Identify Intercostal Muscle Strain?

Some symptoms of Intercostal Muscle Strain include the following:

  1. Tenderness on the rib area– you will know that the area around your ribs is strained if it is tender and or sore when touched.
  2. Difficulty of breathing-this type of strain can cause shortness of breath since it might be painful to breathe. In that case, you may find yourself taking only small sips of air, a reactive mechanism of your body to minimize the pain you are experiencing.
  3. Pain– at the time of the injury, you may feel a sharp pain that may get worse gradually as days pass by before it heals. This pain usually triggers when you do physical activities like standing up from lying down in bed, twisting, breathing deeply, and coughing/sneezing. Your muscles may also feel tight during the injury.
  4. Swelling– when your muscles are partially torn, swelling and inflammation are normal and can be spotted around the affected area–the ribs. 

Disclaimer and Safety Reminder: The said symptoms written above might be similar to those of more serious problems so schedule an appointment with your doctor immediately to get properly assessed. 

Treating Intercostal Muscle Strain at Home

While your muscles are still in their healing process, it could be helpful to ease back pain by doing the following:

Photo from: Dunbar Medical

Heat and cold therapy. For the first two days (48 hours) of injury, it is best and recommended to apply a cold compress, e.g. an ice bag, or cold towel with ice, to the affected area to reduce inflammation and alleviate the pain. You may do this several times a day for a minimum of 20-30 minutes. After this period, you are recommended to apply heat to the affected area. This will help you reduce muscle stress and tension by allowing blood flow, circulation, and nutrients to the muscles which would help the healing process of the injury. To do this at home, you can use an electric heating pad if you have one or just a bottle filled with warm water and put it on the affected area. Make sure to protect your skin by putting a barrier.

Photo from: Cleveland Clinic

Magnesium sulfate (Epsom Salt) Soaks. As part of your heat therapy, you may also try warm baths with Epsom salt. This may help increase the blood levels of magnesium in your body which is best for muscle function. Although there is only a small chance that the magnesium sulfate can be absorbed by your body through baths and can help your strained muscles, warm baths can still help you relax.

Photo from: Auburn Reporter

Over-the-counter medicine (painkillers). While waiting for your doctor’s visit (if you’re having one,) it is best to take over-the-counter painkillers such as ibuprofen or naproxen to help you ease the pain and discomfort. These can restrict the pain signals sent to the brain to minimize the overall pain in your body. Ask the pharmacists how to take it and how frequently to ensure safety from a possible chance of overmedicating. On the other hand, when you go visit your doctor, they might prescribe you some muscle relaxants that will help you minimize muscle spasms and tension if you are going through severe pain. 

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Rest. While an extended period of rest is not necessary and advised as it might lead to muscle weakness which can increase the risk of future injuries, it is best to avoid strenuous activities that can trigger the injury for 2-3 days while the muscles are still healing. Doing activities that have contributed to the injury might just make it worse.

The healing period of muscle strains depends on the severity of the injury. Severe cases may cause back pain. Some cases last only for a week while others last for up to 8 weeks. However, the above-mentioned treatments can help heal most cases of muscle strains.

What to Avoid When You Have an Intercostal Muscle Strain?

Some activities can hinder your recovery when you have this kind of muscle strain such as compression wrapping and smoking so these should be avoided. It is best to stop smoking when still healing since having this can make it hard for you to breathe, as has been mentioned above, and smoking can cause problems with respiration. Also, try to avoid secondhand smoke while healing. Relatedly, while compression wrapping strained muscles is effective and is advised for some patients, it is not advisable for intercostal strains. This can make the bruising worse which can make it harder to breathe with a more painful chest by wrapping it.

Intercostal muscle strain can be very frustrating since this can especially happen when it is taking too long to heal. If this happens and if it is already bothering you, visit your doctor immediately since they can help you with your problem. To avoid muscle strains in the future, always make sure to warm up before doing your workouts, and do not overdo anything that you are not used to doing. 


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