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Symptoms of Damage to the Costal Cartilage

written by: NoreenK • edited by: Leigh A. Zaykoski • updated: 3/30/2010

The costal cartilage is important in the anatomy of the thorax or chest because it allows movement of the rib cage during breathing. Damage to the costal cartilage can occur due to inflammation, viruses, injuries, falls and surgery. Symptoms include pain in the chest, back and neck.

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    The thorax or chest consists of the ribs, sternum, thoracic vertebrae and costal or costochondral cartilage. These bony and cartilage tissues form a rigid but slightly moveable structure that protects the heart, lungs and other internal organs. Costal cartilage is important in providing some elasticity to this bony structure that aids in movement in the chest during respiration.

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    Damage to the Costal Cartilage May Occur in Accidents, Falls and Sports Injuries

    Costal cartilage is the fibrous tissue that attaches the ribs to the sternum or breastbone at the anterior or front of the body. Ribs one to seven are connected directly to the sternum while ribs eight to ten are called false ribs because do not attach to the sternum but are secured to the seventh rib by costal cartilage. The last two ribs attach to the spine but are not secured to the front bony chest.

    Injury, damage and blunt-force trauma to the chest are common in athletic injuries, falls and other accidents. The ribs and costal cartilage are continuous with the spine at the back and the bones of the clavicle or collar bone, shoulders and arms at the sides. Damage to ribs and costal cartilage can result from direct force to the chest wall or transferred from the back or sides.

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    X-Rays May Not Show Costal Cartilage Fractures

    X-ray scans of the chest often show bony rib fractures, however radiography scans cannot usually reveal fractures in costal cartilage, except in very densely calcified cartilage. Therefore costal cartilage fractures and damage is often undiagnosed and unreported.

    Symptoms of costal cartilage damage can be caused by fractures, breaks, viral infections and inflammation at the rib to sternum joints. Inflammation can also occur due to autoimmune disease or after thoracic surgery. Symptoms include pain when breathing, curling the back or shoulders forward or in general movement. As the rib cage and costal cartilage moves continuously during breathing, even minor fractures and injuries can cause significant pain.

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    Symptoms of Inflammation and Infection

    Symptoms of Inflammation and Infection

    Costochondritis is the inflammation of the costal cartilage. This can be caused by hypermobility or over extending the back or chest during exercise, sports or an accident. Pain is usually caused by injury to the costal cartilage of the tenth rib because the false ribs or ribs eight to ten have greater mobility and are therefore more prone to injury and damage. Costochondritis is also more common in these ribs or costal cartilage of the lower ribs because there is less blood supply to the cartilaginous tissue in this area.

    Other symptoms that may be caused by damage to costal cartilage include unexplained upper back pain between the shoulder blades, pain in the breast bone area, during sudden movement and pain and difficulty breathing while lying down in any position. Pain caused by inflammation of the costal cartilage may also move from side to side and to the arms and neck area. This can be mistaken for a heart attack. Women may find that the pain worsens if wearing a bra. Stress, movements such as lifting, pushing, sitting for long hours or even sneezing or blowing the nose may make the symptoms worse.