Sternum pain

Updated November 21, 2016

Your sternum is a dagger-shaped, flat bone that is situated in the middle of your chest. It forms the rib cage, along with your ribs. The rib cage protects the lungs, heart and blood vessels from injury. Your sternum is made up of the manubrim (handle) that is situated at the top of the sternum and moves slightly. It is connected to the first two ribs. The body is found in the middle of the sternum; it directly connects to the third to seventh ribs and indirectly connects to the eighth through tenth ribs. The tip or xiphoid process is found at the bottom of the sternum. Initially, the tip is made of cartilage, but it turns into bone as you age. You may experience pain in your sternum for a number of reasons.


Inflammation at the junctions where your upper ribs join with the cartilage that holds them to the sternum, or breastbone, is called costochondritis. This condition results in localised pain in your chest. If you push on the cartilage in the front of your ribcage, you will feel pain if you are suffering from costochondritis.


Another condition that can result in sternum pain is called Tietze syndrome, which is a form of costochondritis, and it, too, is the result of inflammation in the breast area. The difference between the two conditions is that swelling occurs with Tietze syndrome and doesn’t with costochondritis. The swelling appears at the junction of the ribs and cartilage, usually at the second and third rib sites. If you have had surgery on your sternum, Tietze syndrome may result. The reason for the swelling is not known. If you have this problem, ask your physician about getting corticosteroid injections or taking NSAIDs, which are non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs; they should provide you with some relief.


According to Dr. Nathan Wei, a fellow of the American College of Physicians and the American College of Rheumatology, septic arthritis can also result in sternum pain. Septic arthritis develops when there is an infection in the synovial, or joint, fluid and in the joint tissues. Another name for septic arthritis is pyogenic arthritis.


A chronic inflammatory type of arthritis called ankylosing spondylitis (AS) can result in sternum pain. This condition targets the joints at the base of the spine. The joints between the spine and the ribs, and between the sternum and the ribs, can become stiff and painful. The stiffness results in decreased chest expansion.


You may find relief from sternum pain by applying a hot compress to the site. Ask your physician if you should be taking NSAIDs for pain relief.

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About the Author

Cindi Pearce is a graduate of Ohio University, where she received her bachelor’s degree in journalism. She completed both the undergraduate and graduate courses offered by the Institute of Children’s Literature. Pearce has been writing professionally for over 30 years.