Intercostal Muscle Strain

Rib or chest wall pain is annoying, and quite common after a muscle spasm or intercostal muscle strain. You may experience sprains in any muscles, but intercostal strain, or that which is located between the ribs, are especially painful. They result in severe, shooting, spasmodic pain. Read on to learn the symptoms and the treatment for intercostal muscle strain.

Intercostal muscle strains can be more painful than almost any other muscle strain. Especially if you are active, your rubs take a beating every day. Muscle strains in the rib and chest are more painful because you use those muscles to breathe. And breathing itself can hurt your muscle if you have this type of strain.

You may even feel like you broke a rib due to the pain levels. Depending on the severity, your physician may give you the same type of treatment for a strain as for a fracture. Follow the advice of your physician to aid in a speedy recovery.

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What Causes an Intercostal Muscle Strain?

There are 11 muscle groups in the ribcage alone. Intercostal spaces have three muscle layers attached to your ribs. These aid in keeping your chest stable when you move, and in holding your ribs in place and together.

While these muscles can stretch and move a lot, like everything else, they do have limits. The causes of intercostal strains include:

  1. Twisting the Upper Body

When you over-twist your upper body, it strains the intercostal muscles. It may even over-stretch those muscles, putting pressure on your ribcage. These movements may result from dance moves, yoga positions, wrestling or turning quickly around to see something that is behind you.

  1. Blow to the Chest Wall

When you receive a blow directly to your chest, you can strain your rib muscles. This occurs commonly in football and hockey games or karate. It can also happen in a car wreck, an assault or an at-work injury.

  1. Over Stretching

Even when you’re trying to stretch gently, you may rupture or strain the rib muscles. Pulling and stretching them too far apart may cause your intercostal nerves to be pinched between your muscles and ribs. This causes nerve pain and severe spasm, in addition to the strain. This is most common in sports like badminton, volleyball, golf or tennis, where you have to reach high above you and exert force in the chest area.

  1. Forceful Arm Swinging

If you stretch your arm too far when you swing it, it will stretch the ribs toward that arm. If you happen to be twisting the lower half of your body the other way, this can make it even worse. If you exert enormous force, you may even tear a muscle.

Intercostal Muscle Strain Symptoms

Symptoms of these muscle strains include pain, tenderness, muscle tightness and swelling. Sometimes it leads to a shortness of breath. These are also symptoms of more serious injury, so you should see a physician before you try to treat the strain yourself.


  • Sudden, severe pain in the muscles between the ribs
  • Tenderness when your ribs are pushed on or touched
  • Intense, shooting, sharp pain
  • Constant and severe pain
  • Pain that becomes more intense when you sneeze, cough or twist your body
  • Pain from mild strains will go away without treatment in a couple days.


  • Swollen ribs on the same side as your injury
  • Hematoma, or a swollen area that fills with blood
  • Swollen areas around the site of the injury


  • Painful bruising
  • Tenderness over the ribs, rather than inside your chest
  • Pain when turning in bed or sitting down and getting up
  • Not being able to wear any tight clothing on the upper body

Muscle Tightness

  • Tightness is more severe in injured area.
  • Muscles in the wall of the chest may feel very tight.
  • It can be hard to move your arms or chest.
  • Taking deep breaths may cause more pain.

Shortness of Breath

  • Breathing may become shallower, to avoid pain.
  • Difficulty in breathing deeply without pain
  • Muscles can feel too tight for air to enter the lungs.

Coping with Intercostal Muscle Strain

You can do some things at home that will give you a faster, more comfortable recovery. Try these methods:

  1. Alternating Cold & Hot

Use a dry ice pack for the first 24 hours. After that, alternate cold and hot packs four times each day. Ice reduces swelling and inflammation and heat improves blood flow to help in healing.

  1. Immobilizing the Ribs

Use ace bandages to wrap your chest, giving the ribs helpful compression. Don’t do this after the second day. Be sure you don’t make them so tight that they hinder your breathing.

  1. Trying Epsom Salt Soaks

One DIY method of relieving intercostal muscle strain is soaking in Epsom salts. They can be helpful in relieving pain. Fill your bath with hot water and then add a cup of Epsom salts (or two cups). Soak in your bath until the water has cooled.

  1. Taking Deep Breathing

You will quite naturally take shallow breaths when your ribs hurt. This could, however, lead to a case of pneumonia, which could cause even more pain with coughing. It would slow down your healing time, too, since less oxygen is getting to your injured muscles.

Steps to increase breathing:

  • Breathe slowly in, opening your lungs as far as you can. Hold your breath for several seconds and then slowly breathe out.
  • Do this exercise once each hour, to prevent a case of pneumonia.
  • Don’t smoke if you have an intercostal muscle strain. It will make you more likely to develop lung problems or pneumonia.

How Long will it Take You to Fully Recover?

Recovery for rib cage muscle strains takes about two weeks if you just have a mild strain. If your muscles were moderately strained, it can take three or four weeks. For severe strains, you may not recover before eight weeks after your injury. Even if you’ve torn a muscle, eight weeks is usually enough time for it to heal.

Your physician will probably advise you not to lift or do any strenuous activity for at least three weeks. Quiet rest or bed rest may be needed. During this time, you may be advised to take muscle relaxers or anti-inflammatory medications like Ibuprofen, to relieve your spasms.


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