Physically active people are more vulnerable to strains of the intercostal muscles, located between your ribs, but twisting your body in unexpected ways can cause the injury in anyone. Your doctor prescribes the same treatment for fractured ribs as for intercostal muscle strain, even though you sustain these injuries in different ways. The Midtown Orthopaedics and Sports Medicine practice notes that while excessive twisting of the trunk commonly causes intercostal muscle strain, it would be unusual for a person to break his ribs with a twisting motion.
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Your intercostal muscles are located between your ribs. These muscles expand and contract to move your ribs, giving your lungs enough room to inhale and exhale. You have three layers of these important respiratory muscles — the external, innermost and internal intercostal muscle layers. External intercostal muscles lie below ribs in what is known as intercostal space; internal intercostals lie above ribs. You have 11 external and 11 internal intercostal muscles on each side, running alongside each rib, according to the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences. The innermost intercostal muscles are deep inside your chest cavity. Therapy focuses on restoring pain-free respiratory function lost due to strains of these various muscle groups.
Any sport that exerts force on your torso or requires you to move your abdomen dramatically increases your risk for strained intercostal muscles. Examples include tennis, swimming, basketball and gymnastics — but this injury can occur during any sport, physical activity like housework or as the result of an accident like falling on the ice. A violent, jerking motion may also cause strained intercostal muscles, like taking a sharp turn in a very fast boat. Strained muscles do not stretch very well, and you feel pain when your injured intercostal muscles try to move your ribs during inhalation. Therapy restores function by relaxing strained muscles.
Therapy for intercostal muscle strain addresses the pain you feel when you inhale. Some sufferers feel sharp, stabbing pain when they breathe; others feel an ever-present, dull ache with every breath. Therapy may help you regain the ability to take a deep breath without feeling intense pain over the affected area of your ribcage. Therapy relaxes your intercostal muscles so that your ribcage expands and contracts normally during respiration.
In the event of an intercostal muscle strain, your doctor will typically recommend you take it easy, relax and apply ice to the affected area. Therapy may include lying on your affected side and drawing deep breaths. Your doctor might also prescribe painkillers or suggest you take non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs to reduce discomfort. It could take two to three weeks for therapy to relieve symptoms from moderate intercostal muscle strain fully, but healing times vary according to the severity of your injury. Severe strains may take up to six weeks to heal.