If you think you have costochondritis, exercises may in fact be to blame. But before you write it off as pain brought on by a workout, take the time to educate yourself about what else might be causing your chest discomfort. It might just save your life.
When it comes to costochondritis, exercises can be the cause. But undiagnosed chest discomfort might also signal a true medical emergency.
Costochondritis and Exercises
As explained by the National Library of Medicine (NLM), costochondritis is inflammation and pain in the cartilage that connects your ribs to your breastbone. Although the NLM notes there is often no known cause for costochondritis, strenuous exercise and heavy lifting are both included in the list of possible causes.
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Other possible causes for costochondritis include chest injury, viral infections, strain from coughing, infections after surgery, infections from IV drug use, and some types of arthritis.
In the Harvard Health Letter "Ask the Doctor" column, Deepak L. Bhatt, M.D., M.P.H., explains that the main symptom of costochondritis can be sharp, dull or gnawing chest pain that tends to get worse when you take a deep breath or cough. Your chest might feel tender or even swollen.
However, chest pain can signal other serious problems. Every expert source, including the NLM, Dr. Bhatt and the Mayo Clinic, reinforces the importance of calling 911 or going to the emergency room right away if you have chest pain, whether it's associated with exercise or not. That's because, while chest pain can be a symptom of costochondritis, it can also be indicative of heart disease or other medical problems.
Make sure to explain your symptoms. As Dr. Bhatt notes, making that 911 call is the ideal solution, because paramedics can arrive quickly and administer a quick, painless electrocardiogram to determine if you are in fact having a heart attack.
Nobody likes having to call 911, but it's worth it to rule out a life-threatening emergency — or treat the emergency if it is happening. The Mayo Clinic notes that in addition to heart disease, the sort of chest pain caused by costochondritis can be similar to the symptoms of lung disease, gastrointestinal problems and even osteoarthritis.
What If I Have Costochondritis?
As the Mayo Clinic explains, there is no laboratory or imaging test to confirm a diagnosis of costochondritis. When you turn up with symptoms your doctor might feel along your breastbone for tenderness or swelling — both possibly symptoms of costochondritis — or ask you to move your rib cage or arms in an attempt to trigger the symptoms you've been experiencing.
As noted at the NLM, costochondritis often goes away on its own, although it can last for days, weeks, or even months. Possible treatments include hot or cold compresses, avoiding activities that increase the pain (a classic case of "if it hurts, don't do it"), pain medication and sometimes physical therapy.
Even if you've already been diagnosed with costochondritis, the NLM advises contacting your medical provider if you experience additional symptoms such as difficulty breathing, a high fever or other signs of infection, sharp pain with every breath, and pain that continues or gets worse after taking pain medicine.
Because there is no known cause for costochondritis, that translates to no clear way of preventing it. Although there's no guarantee that easing into your workouts can help you avoid this condition, it never hurts. In fact, it's always a good idea.
That applies to warming up for at least 5 to 10 minutes before every workout, but it also means you should start with workouts you can handle, then gradually increase difficulty and duration over time. This gradual buildup gives your body — including your ribs — a chance to adapt to the increased demands you're placing on it.
Read more: Chest Pain After Pullups
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.