Intercostal Muscle Sprain

by Sam Malone


The intercostal muscles are located between the ribs. There are eleven intercostal muscles that are located on each side of the rib cage. They function to move and stabilize the chest wall. Intercostal muscles connect one rib to another and aid in breathing by expanding and contracting the ribs effectively.

A rapid twisting of the torso often results in an intercostal muscle sprain. A stretching or rotating movement can cause intercostal muscle tear common in sports like basketball and tennis. An intercostal muscle sprain initially causes severe and constant pain. However, after a few days, the pain occurs during stretching movements, coughing, or breathing deeply. Usually, the intercostal muscle pain clears up on its own within a few weeks.

Causes


When a muscle or tendon is stretched, a sprain occurs. The rib muscles are separated by intercostal muscles. Intercostal muscles play a vital role in the movement of the ribs. When the muscles contract, the ribs move up, and when the muscles relax, they moves down. When breathing, these muscles force air in and out of the chest. A strenuous activity that exerts excessive force on the rib cage can cause intercostal muscle sprains. The most common causes of an intercostal muscle sprain include the following:

  • Forceful twisting of the body
  • Swinging of arms
  • Sports activities like golf, baseball, tennis
  • A direct blow to the rib cage

Symptoms


The symptoms may differ depending on the severity of the injury. The most common symptoms include:

  • Pain in the injured area
  • Swelling
  • Tenderness at the site
  • Difficulty breathing
  • Sharp, stabbing pains
  • Painful aches or soreness around rib cage
  • Bruising
  • Stiffness around the ribs and chest area, resulting from torn blood vessels

Intercostal muscle sprains can be diagnosed easily using clinical examination. X rays and MRI scans are used to rule out a fracture of the ribs. MRI scans also help to determine the severity of the damage.

Treatment


Since an intercostal strain is a mild muscular injury, they can be treated easily with the RICE therapy -  Rest, Ice application, Compress, and Exercise.

The treatment options include anti-inflammatory medications and over-the-counter pain medication that can help to reduce inflammation. Rest is also very important, and it is necessary to stop sports activities to limit the movement of the torso. Continuous exertion can injure the strained muscles further and may lead to a fracture. However, bed rest for more than the stipulated days without any physical activities may cause muscle tightness and decrease flexibility, which may delay the healing process. Simple gentle stretching exercises can help to strengthen the muscles. Stretching exercises such as side-bends and side bends with rotation can ease the condition.

Applying an ice pack for twenty minutes three to four times a day helps. It can alleviate pain and reduce swelling. Ensure that you wrap the ice pack with a towel to avoid frostbite injury. Wearing a rib belt that limits chest expansions helps to prevent pain and breathing difficulties.

Intercostal muscle strains may be mild, moderate or severe. Damage to the muscle fibers causes a mild sprain and healing occurs within two or three weeks. Extensive damage to the muscle fibers causes moderate strain and healing occurs within six weeks. An intercostal muscle tear or a complete rupture of the muscle causes a severe injury and takes a considerable time for healing. Generally though, one can recover from an intercostal sprain fully after six weeks. It is best to consult a doctor for diagnosis and treatment should the pain persist or worsen.

References:

  1. http://www.niams.nih.gov/Health_Info/Sprains_Strains/default.asp
  2. http://www.betterhealth.vic.gov.au/bhcv2/bhcarticles.nsf/pages/rib_injuries?open

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