Intercostal Muscle Strain

Intercostal Muscle Strain

The intercostal muscles are an important group of muscles lie between your ribs (intercostal spaces) that contract during respiration. Three muscles are classically described as external intercostals, internal intercostals, and the innermost intercostals. Get to know what causes Intercostal Muscle Strain, its symptoms, diagnosis, and treatment options.

Causes of Intercostal Muscle Strain

A strain of any of the layers of the intercostal muscles can cause pain and difficulty breathing. A strain is when a muscle pulls, stretches, or is partially torn. Muscle strains are a common cause of chest pain. From 21 – 49% of all musculoskeletal chest pain comes from the intercostal muscles.

You can strain or pull your intercostal muscles in many different ways. Commonly these muscles hurt by twisting motion. The patient feels Pain from a sudden injury or it can begin gradually from repetitive motions.

Intercostal Muscle Strain caused by following activities:

  • Lifting while twisting
  • Chopping wood
  • Sneezing or coughing
  • Falling
  • Reaching, like when painting a ceiling
  • Participating in sports like golf, tennis, rowing, or baseball
  • Being hit in the ribcage, like in a car accident or during contact sports

Symptoms of Intercostal Muscle Strain

Intercostal muscle strain Symptoms include:


You may feel a sharp pain at the time of injury, or it may come on more gradually. The pain will increase when you twist, stretch, breathe in deeply, cough, or sneeze.

Difficulty respiration

Because it’s so painful to breathe, you may find yourself taking small, shallow sips of air. This can leave you short of breath.


On touching, you may feel pain and discomfort between your ribs.

Muscle tightness

The strained or injured muscles may feel tight when you breathe, reach, or twist.


A strained or partially torn muscle will become inflamed. You may notice some swelling between and around the affected ribs.

These symptoms can be similar to those of more serious problems, so schedule an appointment with your doctor. They can check your signs, symptoms and determine the underlying cause.

Diagnosis of Intercostal Muscle Strain

Your health specialist will diagnose your intercostal muscle strain by asking you few questions history of injury and doing a physical examination.

  • Your doctor may query you to understand if you remember falling or twisting when the pain began.
  • Your doctor would test by touching the tender area and pain level during motion and tests your range of motion.
  • Doctor asks about any sports you play.

Your health specialist may order a chest X-ray to make sure your lungs weren’t bruised or punctured when you were injured.

Treatment for Intercostal Muscle Strain

Over-the-counter medicines for pain relief

While you wait to see your doctor, you can take over-the-counter anti-inflammatory medicines like acetaminophen (Tylenol), or simple pain relievers like ibuprofen (Advil) or naproxen (Aleve). Follow the package directions for how much and how often to take these drugs.

Consult with your health specialist before taking over-the-counter medication together with your normal medication. Don’t take extra doses; several products that contain pain relievers, including medicines for colds or menstrual cramps.

Muscle relaxants

Muscle relaxants are usually used for severe pain, muscle relaxants may be used to reduce painful muscle tension or spasms. These drugs are prescribed by an experienced doctor and typically work as a depressant on the central nervous system to relax the muscles.

Hot and cold therapy

Cold therapy can help ease your pain and reduce inflammation of the muscle. Apply a cold pack to the injured area for 20 minutes at a time, several times a day for the first 2 days. You can use an ice bag, a gel cold pack, a plastic bag filled with ice and wrapped in a towel, or even a bag of frozen veggies.

You may want to start using heat on the injured ribs, after the first 48 hours, Heat can help loosen and relax the muscles so you can do your physiotherapy. With a heating pad or a warm damp towel, you can apply heat for 20 minutes at a time.

Hot baths with dissolved minerals absorb through your skin and may slightly increase your blood levels of magnesium. Magnesium is an important mineral for muscle function. While bathing a small amount of magnesium absorbed by your body may help your strained muscles, the hot bath can help you relax and relive the intercostal muscle strain.

Breathing exercises

Breathing with an intercostal muscle strain is painful when you try to inhale. Some patients feel sharp, stabbing pain when they breathe; others feel an ever-present, dull ache with every breath. Breathing exercises may help you regain the ability to take a deep breath without feeling intense pain over the affected area of your ribcage. Deep breathing exercises relax your intercostal muscles so that your ribcage expands and contracts normally during respiration.

Try to do a few minutes of breathing exercises every hour. For example:

  • Hold a pillow against your injured muscles.
  • Breathe in slowly and as deeply as you can.
  • Hold the breath for a few seconds.
  • Breathe out slowly.
  • Repeat Ten times.

Once you see your health expert, they may send you home with a spirometer, a plastic tool that gives you a visual clue to how deeply you should breathe.


Along with medication, rest, ice, heat, and breathing exercises, physiotherapy may ease your discomfort and speed your healing. Your health specialist may refer you to a physiotherapist after making a diagnosis.

A physiotherapist can teach you tips for sleeping — like trying a recliner so your chest is elevated — and for loosening up in the morning. Following a physiotherapy program can help you get back to your usual activities sooner.

If for some reason an experienced doctor is not available around you, then you can contact us here.


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