The sternum is also referred to as the chest bone or breastbone. This is a flat bone that is situated in the central portion of the chest, just underneath the collarbone. If you refer to human anatomy, then you can easily identify the T-shaped sternum, which joins the rib bones on both sides via the cartilage.
Acute and Chronic
Pain in the sternum can be either an acute (lasting for a short period of time) or chronic (lasting for a longer time period) condition. At times, it is associated with a cracking or clicking sensation in the sternum bone.
What Leads to Sternum Pain?
Although sternum pain is listed as a common symptom associated with chest pain, it is to be borne in mind that the pain experienced is entirely different from cardiac-related chest pain or angina.
An injury or inflammation to the rib cartilage which connects to the sternum (costochondritis: pronounced: kos-toe-khon-dri-tis), is one of the most common reasons for experiencing breastbone pain. Even though not many of us are aware about costochondritis, thousands of people seek medical attention every year for treatment of this medical condition. In majority of the cases, it develops due to inflammation and/or swelling of the rib cartilage, resulting in sharp pain on the left side of the breastbone. The pain worsens when coughing or deep breathing. Therefore, many a time, the pain might mimic a pain which is felt in a heart attack or any other heart condition. This condition is also referred to as costosternal syndrome, costosternal chondrodynia, and chest wall pain. If the symptoms of costochondritis are accompanied by swelling, then the condition is referred to as Tietze syndrome.
This is an irritating burning sensation which is felt mostly at the lower sternum. The burning pain, can many a time extend to the neck and throat. Heartburn is usually caused by gastroesophageal reflux (backflow of stomach acid into the esophagus).
Sternoclavicular Joint Injury
The sternoclavicular (SC) joint is the anatomical structure that connects the sternum to the collarbone (clavicle). Accidental trauma to this joint can cause mild to serious pain in the sternum, based on the severity of the injury. To be precise, dislocation of the SC joint, either anterior or posterior, may cause severe pain in the sternum.
Inflammation of the thin membrane around the lungs and inner walls of the chest consisting serum (pleura). Pneumonia, tuberculosis, and other lung-related diseases leads to pleurisy.
The collarbone is located at the top portion of the chest (thorax), in between the sternum and the scapula (or shoulder blade). Collarbone fractures and injuries are quite common, which may occur at birth, due to a fall, or due to an accident. Pain that results due to a collarbone injury can be combated by getting the bone fixed correctly.
Another rare cause of pain in the breastbone is a fracture, which is mostly caused due to physical trauma. Injury to the sternum is possible only when a hard object hits the sternum directly with a good amount of force. However, if a sternal fracture occurs, it is usually a comminuted or crunched fracture, in which the sternum breaks into pieces.
Pectoral Muscle Pain
Sternum pain might also be felt due to pain in the intercostal muscles (muscles between the ribs) and the pectoral muscles (large chest muscles). The intercostal muscles contract during inhalation and sometimes strain hard while breathing, and this leads to the pain in the sternum.
Sternum pain is also reported as a post-surgical symptom of an open heart operation that involves separation of the sternum from the adjacent muscles. Other possible causes of pain are:
- Overstraining of the muscles in the chest portion
- Osteomyelitis in the sternum (inflammation due to an infection of the bone or bone marrow)
- Injured ribs
- Bone cancer
- Breast cancer
- Excessive exercising
- In case the pain is associated with a mass formation in the sternal area, then there are chances of severe ailments like chondrosarcoma -- a cancerous neoplasm of the cartilage cells, or lymphoma.
Diagnosis and Treatment Options
As already mentioned, pain in the sternum is not actually related to heart problems. However, it is to be noted that sternum pain is also a serious condition that should be addressed as soon as possible. Similar to any other health condition, early diagnosis and proper treatment is always advisable.
For diagnosis of pain in the breastbone, the physician will examine medical history and conduct imaging tests. Depending upon whether the pain is acute or chronic, the doctor may recommend medications such as corticosteroids or non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) for treatment of the condition. For mild pain resulting from rigorous exercise, over-the-counter painkillers like acetaminophen, ibuprofen, or naproxen are effective for getting relief. Lastly, getting adequate rest helps in quick healing of the injuries (if any), and thus, promotes faster recovery.
Disclaimer: This article is solely for informative purposes, and should not be used as a substitute for professional medical advice.