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Intercostal Muscle Strain

Intercostal Muscle Strain: Causes, Symptoms & Treatments

Manhattan Medical Arts is dedicated to providing you with the knowledge and care you need to maintain a healthy and active lifestyle. In this blog, we will get into the details of intercostal muscle strain – shedding light on its causes, symptoms, effective treatments, as well as the preventive measures that can be taken.

We understand that dealing with this condition can be painful and frustrating, so let’s dive right into it to help you on your path to recovery.

What are Intercostal Muscle Strains?

Intercostal muscle strains, often called pulled or torn intercostal muscles, are basically injuries that affect the muscles present between the ribs. These muscles, crucial for breathing, include external, internal, and innermost layers.

The external muscles assist in inhalation by lifting the ribcage, while the internal muscles aid in forced exhalation by lowering it. When these muscles sustain damage, typically from overexertion, sudden movements, chronic conditions, poor posture, or age-related factors, it can lead to an intercostal muscle strain. Understanding the role of these muscles and the mechanisms behind their strain is essential for effective management and prevention.

If you suspect an intercostal muscle strain, seeking medical attention is vital for a proper diagnosis and guidance towards the path to recovery. By grasping the nature of this injury, you can also take proactive steps to prevent it and maintain your overall well-being.

Intercostal Muscle Strain Causes

These painful disruptions between the ribs can strike unexpectedly, affecting our daily routines. Understanding the specific causes behind this condition is vital in both preventing its occurrence and seeking appropriate treatment when needed.

1. Overexertion: Perhaps the most common cause, overexertion can occur during rigorous physical activities, especially when the body hasn’t been adequately prepared. Athletes who engage in sports involving sudden, explosive movements, such as sprinting, tennis, or weightlifting, may be particularly susceptible.

2. Sudden Movements: Everyday actions like twisting, lifting heavy objects, or even sneezing forcefully can strain intercostal muscles if performed too abruptly or without proper body mechanics.

3. Chronic Conditions: Underlying health issues can also play a significant role. Chronic coughing due to respiratory conditions, persistent sneezing from allergies, or frequent bouts of asthma can subject these muscles to continuous stress, increasing the risk of strain.

4. Poor Posture: Maintaining poor posture over time can lead to muscle imbalances and put additional pressure on intercostal muscles, potentially resulting in strain.

5. Aging: As we age, our muscles and connective tissues may naturally lose some elasticity, making them more prone to injury, including intercostal muscle strains.

Intercostal Muscle Strain Symptoms

When intercostal muscles, the essential structures between your ribs, experience strain or injury, they can manifest a range of uncomfortable and often painful symptoms. Recognizing these symptoms is crucial for early diagnosis and prompt treatment.

Here are the key signs to watch out for:

1. Sharp, Localized Pain: One of the most prominent symptoms of intercostal muscle strain is sharp, localized pain along the affected area of your ribcage. This pain can vary in intensity but is often described as a sudden, stabbing sensation that worsens with movement or deep breathing.

2. Tenderness to the Touch: The affected area may become tender when touched. Gently pressing on the area around the ribs can elicit discomfort or even pain.

3. Difficulty Breathing: Intercostal muscle strains can make taking deep breaths or coughing particularly painful. You may notice that the pain intensifies when you inhale deeply or engage in activities that require increased respiratory effort.

4. Muscle Spasms: Some individuals with intercostal muscle strains may experience muscle spasms in the affected area. These involuntary contractions can add to the discomfort and limit your range of motion.

5. Limited Mobility: Due to the pain and discomfort associated with intercostal muscle strain, you may find that your ability to move comfortably is significantly restricted. Activities such as bending, twisting, or lifting objects may become challenging.

How To Sleep With Intercostal Muscle Strain

Getting a good night’s sleep with intercostal muscle strain can be very challenging. Try these tips to minimize discomfort:

Sleep on Your Back: Sleeping on your back with a pillow under your knees can help reduce strain on your ribcage.

Use Pillows for Support: Placing pillows strategically can provide support and alleviate pressure from the affected area.

Pain Medications: Make sure to consult your doctor for appropriate pain relief options before bedtime.

Intercostal Muscle Strain Treatment

Dealing with the discomfort and limited mobility associated with intercostal muscle strain can be challenging, but the good news is that there are effective treatments available to help you on your path to recovery. The approach to treatment may vary depending on the severity of your strain, but here are some commonly recommended strategies:

1. Rest and Avoidance of Aggravating Activities: The first and most crucial step in treating intercostal muscle strains is to give your muscles the time they need to heal. This involves avoiding activities that can worsen the strain, such as heavy lifting or strenuous exercise. Rest is paramount, as it allows the damaged muscle fibers to repair themselves.

2. Cold Compress: Applying a cold compress or ice pack to the affected area can help reduce swelling and alleviate pain. Be sure to wrap the ice pack in a cloth to prevent direct contact with your skin.

3. Pain Medication: Over-the-counter pain relievers, such as ibuprofen or acetaminophen, can provide temporary relief from discomfort. It’s essential to follow the recommended dosage instructions and consult with a healthcare professional if you have any concerns.

4. Physical Therapy: In some cases, a physical therapist can develop a customized exercise and stretching program to strengthen the intercostal muscles and improve flexibility. Physical therapy can be particularly beneficial for individuals with more severe strains or those looking to prevent future occurrences.

5. Breathing Exercises: Learning proper breathing techniques can help reduce the strain on your intercostal muscles during activities that require deep breaths. Your healthcare provider or physical therapist can guide you in these exercises.

6. Heat Therapy: After the initial acute phase, applying heat to the affected area can help relax the muscles and improve blood flow, promoting healing. Be cautious with heat application to avoid burns.

7. Supportive Measures: Wearing a supportive brace or bandage around the affected area can provide additional support and help reduce movement that might exacerbate the strain.

Intercostal Muscle Strain Prevention

Prevention is the key to avoiding intercostal muscle strains:

Proper Warm-up: Always warm up before engaging in physical activities.

Core Strengthening: Strengthening your core muscles can provide added support to your ribcage.

Maintain Good Posture: Pay attention to your posture during daily activities.

When To See a Doctor

If you experience severe pain, or difficulty breathing, or if your symptoms persist for an extended period of time, it’s crucial to seek medical attention promptly. Our team at Manhattan Medical Arts is here to provide you with the care and guidance you need during your recovery journey.


Intercostal muscle strain can be painful and disruptive, but with the right knowledge and care, you can overcome it. At Manhattan Medical Arts, our dedicated team of healthcare professionals is committed to helping you achieve a full recovery.

If you’re experiencing intercostal muscle strain or any other medical concerns, don’t hesitate to reach out to us. Your well-being is our top priority, and we’re here to support you every step of the way.

– Disclaimer –
This blog is for informational & educational purposes only, and does not intend to substitute any professional medical advice or consultation. For any health related concerns, please consult with your physician, or call 911.

Medically Reviewed

Last reviewed by Dr. Syra Hanif, M.D. on 09/04/2023

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  • About The Author

    Dr. Syra Hanif M.D.

    Board Certified Primary Care Physician

Dr. Syra Hanif is a board-certified Primary Care Physician (PCP) dedicated to providing compassionate, patient-centered healthcare.

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