Intercostal muscles are those that connect the rib cage and help hold the chest wall together. When you strain or pull one of these muscles, you may experience difficulty breathing or expanding the chest, as well as difficulty or pain when twisting, turning or bending. Although chest pain can be scary, intercostal neuralgia is not life-threatening.
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Intercostal Neuralgia Symptoms
Peripheral nerve damage can cause intercostal neuralgia. The majority of patients feel pain associated with this condition in the upper chest muscles, under the arm and around to the back of the scapula or shoulder blade.
Pain often is intermittent, but makes the touch of cloth, skin pressure and normal daily activities such as sitting or lying difficult and painful.
Causes of Nerve Pain
Herpes zoster, or shingles, can cause postherpetic neuralgia, a chronic condition. Pain is caused by damage or destruction of nerve pathways of the sensory nerve system, also known as the peripheral nervous system.
Intercostal neuralgia also can be caused by pressure against a nerve, aftereffects of surgical procedures or traumatic injury to the chest cavity or the spine.
Intercostal Muscle Exercises
Perform stretches that lift the arms over the head or to the side to open the chest cavity and stretch intercostal muscles, vessels and nerves found between the ribs.
- Lift the arms above the head and clasp your hands together. Gently lean to your right, holding the stretch for several moments. Return to your starting position; then lean to your left, again holding the stretch for several seconds.
- Another stretch that may help relieve pain is to stand in a doorway, holding the jambs with your elbows bent and at a 90-degree angle to your body. With your feet shoulder-distance apart, lean slightly forward, feeling a stretch not only in your back between your shoulder blades, but along the front of the chest as well. Stretch every morning and every evening, repeating a stretch between three to five times each.
- Stretching exercises followed by massage may help relieve pain in the torso and pain associated with a pinched or compressed nerve. Massage exercises such as pressing on the inferior or insides of the side of the chest just below the clavicle may help relieve pain caused by compressed nerves.
Read more: Intercostal Muscle Stretches
Sit Up Straight
You may find some relief from intercostal neuralgia through exercises that help improve your posture. Standing straight, shoulders pulled back and pelvis tucked slightly under may help.
Open the rib cage and stretch intercostal muscles by placing your arms at your side, elbows touching your body. Extend your hands outward until your fists are even with your body. Gently press your hands behind you, trying to touch your shoulder blades together. Press your hands backward in small motions 10 to 20 times. Repeat this exercise throughout the day or at the least in the morning and evening to release tension and help with pain relief.
Other Neuralgia Interventions
Intercostal neuralgia is also medically treated with pain medications, nerve block injections, biofeedback and local application of heat or ice.
Read more: Therapy for Intercostal Muscles
Is this an emergency? If you are experiencing serious medical symptoms, please see the National Library of Medicine’s list of signs you need emergency medical attention or call 911.