You might not think too much about your intercostal muscles unless you strain or otherwise injure them. These muscles lie between your ribs, facilitating the movement needed for breathing in and out.
Intercostal pain ranges from sharp stabbing pains when inhaling, laughing or sneezing to feeling like there is a tight band all the way around your chest. Any pain in the chest necessitates a visit to your health care provider, who can then prescribe an appropriate course of therapy.
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Intercostal Muscle Strain
There are 22 intercostal muscles in your body, 11 on each side. They connect the ribs to one another, spreading them apart as you inhale and bringing them back together as you exhale. The muscles also provide flexibility when you turn or twist, and these are the types of activities most likely to cause an intercostal muscle strain or tear.
The pain may be severe and constant when the injury first happens, according to WebMD, but should let up within a few days with rest and proper treatment. After that, you might still experience pain with coughing or stretching for a few more weeks.
Forget about "no pain, no gain," and fight the urge to power through the rest of your workout. Repetitive movements such as swimming, pressing weights and rowing will only worsen the problem, according to Medical News Today.
Read more: 7 Tips to Become a Better Swimmer
The First 48 Hours
Use a cold pack over the strained muscle for the first 48 hours to reduce inflammation and pain, advises Spine Health Knowledge from Veritas. After this initial period, switch over to heat to help promote healing circulation in the area. A hot bath, heating pad or adhesive heat pad are all options. Take a few days off, but don't get too lazy. Muscles can weaken after a few days, increasing the risk for further injury.
Cause No Harm
Review your daily activities to avoid exacerbating intercostal pain. The first thing to do is to take a break from the activity that you were doing when you tweaked these muscles to begin with. Then, analyze any other items on your to-do list that could result in pulling or straining the muscles further, such as heavy housework that involves reaching or repetitive motions.
Stop smoking or vaping, because heavy inhalation will also further irritate the intercostal muscle strain. Stay away from secondhand smoke and other allergens as much as possible during your recovery time to avoid coughing and sneezing fits that could bring on intercostal muscle spasm.
It might be tempting to wrap your ribs with a compression bandage to keep from overextending your muscles, but this could delay your healing. Total immobility of the muscles can lead to muscle weakness that can cause further injury once your ribs are no longer supported. It will also make breathing more difficult and lead to bruising of the injured muscle.
Stretch It Out
See your doctor to determine whether your injury requires physical therapy or if it will heal on its own. Guided physical therapy exercises can help stretch the muscles gently to promote circulation and healing.
When doing stretches for the intercostal muscles, just elongate the muscle to the point where it still feels comfortable to do so, and hold no longer than 15 to 30 seconds. Spine Health Knowledge from Veritas points out that holding a pose longer is unlikely to add benefit.
If your doctor doesn't send you to the physical therapist's office, there are some light exercises you can do on your own to help your body recover. "Light" is the key word. Aim for "no pain" to reap the gain when it comes to stretching injured intercostal muscles.
Practice Belly Breathing
Taking a deep breath by expanding your rib cage is likely to cause painful spasming of any injured intercostal muscles. Instead, bring oxygen to your lungs by doing some deep belly breathing.
Sit or stand with your back straight. Slowly expand your abdominal muscles to initiate an inhale, letting them rise in a "pot-belly" type of movement. Movement of your rib cage should be minimal. If you place your hands on each side of your lower rib cage while inhaling, you should not feel the ribs expanding or separating.
Release the breath by pressing the abdominal muscles backward toward your spine. Keep the movement gentle and rhythmic as you breathe in and out, keeping the oxygen flow moving by not holding your breath. Don't worry about reaching maximum inhalation or exhalation; just keep the exercise comfortable for your body.
Do Some Light Yoga
Gate Pose — known formally as Parighasana — lets you gently stretch your rib muscles during your healing time. Kneel on a soft, solid surface such as a yoga mat or carpeted floor to do the exercise.
From the upright kneeling position, extend your left leg straight out to the side with the sole of the foot on the floor and the knee facing up to the ceiling. Your foot should be in alignment with your right knee and your hips will be turned slightly toward the extended leg. Keep the right knee — the one you're kneeling on — centered directly below your hip joint and the foot aligned directly behind the knee.
Read more: 10 Yoga Poses for a Better Night's Sleep
Raise your arms out to each side with palms facing down. Bend your body to the left so your hand touches your extended leg, resting it on the thigh, knee, shin or ankle, depending on your flexibility and comfort level. Hold the pose for 15 to 30 seconds and then repeat on the other side.
Sit and Stretch
Another exercise recommended by Spine Health Knowledge from Veritas is the forward stretch. Sit on the floor with your left leg outstretched and your right leg bent. Let the knee fall out to the side and place the sole of the right foot against the left knee.
Bend forward over the right knee as far as you comfortably can, placing your palms on the floor and holding for 15 to 30 seconds. You'll feel the stretch in the left intercostal muscles of your back.
For additional stretching, place your left hand on your bent right knee. Lift your right arm up over your head and bend forward over your extended leg. Hold the stretch for 15 to 30 seconds.
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.