After writing a previous article on breast pain, I came across several postings on a women’s health message board about costochondritis as a possible cause of breast pain. Costochondritis is a painful condition caused by inflammation of the cartilage of the ribs where the ribs connect with the breastbone (sternum).
Although the inflammation of costochondritis does not occur within the breast itself, it can cause pain that feels as if it’s located in the breast. “When men get costochondritis, they think it’s a heart attack; when women get it, they think it’s breast cancer,” says Susan M. Love, M.D., in Dr. Susan Love’s Breast Book, 2nd ed. (91).
Love calls costochondritis an arthritic pain. “You can tell it’s arthritis,” Love says, “by pushing down on your breastbone where your ribs are—-if it hurts a lot more, that’s probably what you’ve got. Similarly, if you take a deep breath and the middle part of your breast hurts, it’s probably arthritis” (91). Women with breast pain caused by costochondritis often describe their pain as a burning sensation in the breast.
There are a number of possible causes of costochondritis: heavy lifting or any other activity that stretches the upper body, trauma to the rib cage, poor posture, aging, a recent viral upper respiratory infection, and pneumonia or other lung disease. “A nurse practitioner noted several new breast pain patients in the freshman class one fall and traced the cause to the sudden unaccustomed use of heavier backpacks,” reports Dr. M. Ellen Mahoney, medical director of the Community Breast Health Project in San Francisco. However, in many cases the cause of the inflammation is unknown.
Treatment of costochondritis involves avoiding any activity that strains the upper body. Over-the-counter anti-inflammatory medications such as aspirin or ibuprofen taken regularly for several days should reduce the pain and inflammation. The pain of costochondritis usually subsides, writes Dr. Nancy Snyderman, but it may take several weeks or up to six months to go away. And, she adds, some people “suffer chronic or recurrent bouts” of costochondritis.
Careful strengthening of the upper body may help prevent a recurrence of costochondritis. “As the pain starts to subside and movement becomes more tolerable, you can begin gentle exercise, which can include strengthening your upper body muscles,” writes Dr. Snyderman. “Be sure to get proper instruction on exercise technique so you don’t cause additional muscle or joint injuries and you don’t re-injure the ribs,” she warns.
The material here is offered for general informational purposes only. You should discuss any breast pain you experience with your physician.