Pain on sternum when touched: Causes and when to see a doctor
Causes and when to see a doctor
Many conditions can cause pain in the sternum, including injuries, pneumonia, bronchitis, and costochondritis. Gastrointestinal problems, such as acid reflux, can cause pain behind the sternum.
People may believe that their sternum pain is a heart attack symptom. However, it is possible to differentiate the two.
In this article, learn about the causes of sternum pain and the differences between sternum pain and heart problems.
The sternum is a flat T-shaped bone that sits at the front of the chest and connects to the ribs with cartilage. It forms part of the rib cage, a series of bones that protects the heart and lungs from injuries.
People often refer to the sternum as the breastbone.
Sternum pain can result from problems with muscles and bones near the sternum, as well as the sternum itself.
Substernal pain is discomfort occurring behind or below the sternum. It often results from gastrointestinal conditions.
Some of the most common causes of sternum and substernal pain are:
- sternum fracture
- sternoclavicular joint injury
- collarbone injuries
- muscular strain or bruise
- acid reflux
Costochondritis is inflammation of the cartilage between the sternum and ribs. The medical term for this area is the costochondral joint.
The symptoms of costochondritis include:
- sharp pain on the side of the sternum area
- pain that worsens with a deep breath or a cough
- discomfort in the ribs
Inflammation in the costochondral joint may occur due to injury, infection, or irritation. A person may experience costochondritis due to:
- impact trauma
- respiratory tract infections
- severe coughing
- physical strains
Learn more about costochondritis here.
Like fractures in other parts of the body, sternum fractures can cause a lot of pain. Sternum fractures usually occur as a direct result of trauma, such as a car accident or sports injury.
People who believe they may have a sternum fracture should seek immediate medical attention in case of additional damage to the heart and lungs.
Symptoms of a sternum fracture include:
- pain during inhaling or coughing
- swelling over the sternum
- difficulty breathing
Learn more about fractures here.
The sternoclavicular joint connects the top of the sternum to the collarbone. Injuries to this joint generally cause pain and discomfort at the top of the sternum in the upper chest area.
People experiencing sternum pain due to a sternoclavicular joint injury will often experience the following:
- mild pain or swelling in the upper chest area
- difficulty or pain when moving the shoulder
- popping or clicking around the joint
The collarbone connects to the top corners of the sternum by cartilage. Due to the direct connection between the two structures, injuries to the collarbone may cause pain in the sternum area.
Impact and stress trauma can damage, or even fracture, a person’s collarbone. Collarbone trauma may affect its connection to the sternum and the surrounding musculature. This may mean a person feels pain either in or around their sternum.
Depending on the location of collarbone trauma, other symptoms may include:
- severe pain when raising the arm
- bruising or swelling in the upper chest area
- abnormal positioning or sagging of the shoulder
- clicking and grinding in the shoulder joint
A great many muscles connect to the sternum and ribs. Injuries or trauma can result in bruising these muscles, which may cause them to ache. Strenuous or repetitive movements can also cause strains in these muscles.
Learn more about muscle strains here.
Most hernias occur in the abdomen. However, a hiatal hernia can affect the chest area and cause substernal pain.
A hiatal hernia occurs when the stomach moves past the diaphragm and into the chest. Symptoms of a hiatal hernia include:
- frequent burping
- vomiting blood
- a feeling of fullness
- trouble swallowing
People with substernal pain and symptoms of a hiatal hernia should see a doctor for prompt treatment.
Learn more about hernias here.
Acid reflux happens when stomach acid wears away the lining of the windpipe (esophagus). This happens primarily in people with gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD).
Acid reflux may cause substernal pain and discomfort in the chest.
Pain in this region can also result from inflammation or a spasm of the windpipe. People with GERD should talk with their doctor about preventing further damage to this area.
Learn the difference between heartburn, acid reflux, and GERD here.
Pleura are sheets of tissue between the lungs and ribcage. Inflammation to these tissues is pleurisy.
Pleurisy can cause a sharp, stabbing pain at the site of irritation, which may worsen if a person breathes deeply, coughs, or wheezes.
If inflammation occurs toward the upper middle chest, pleurisy may cause substernal pain.
Learn more about pleurisy here.
Bronchitis is the inflammation of the primary airways of the lungs. The condition can cause:
- chest pain
- severe coughing spells
- shortness of breath
Inflammation of the primary airways may cause substernal pain.
Learn more about bronchitis here.
Pneumonia is a common lung infection that causes air sacs in the lungs to inflame and fill with fluid. The medical term for these air sacs is alveoli.
Pneumonia can cause sharp chest pains, which a person may feel behind their sternum.
Other symptoms of pneumonia include.
- severe coughing
- shortness of breath
- nausea and vomiting
- loss of appetite
Infectious bacteria, viruses and fungi can cause pneumonia.
Learn more about pneumonia here.
Symptoms of sternum pain vary depending on the cause. The most common symptom is discomfort and pain in the center of the chest, which is the location of the sternum.
Other associated symptoms may include:
- pain or discomfort in the ribs
- pain that worsens during deep breathing or coughing
- mild, aching pain in the upper chest
- swelling in the upper chest
- stiffness in the shoulder joints
- severe pain when raising the arms
- signs of collarbone trauma, such as bruising or swelling
- difficulty breathing
- grinding or popping sensation in joints near the sternum
- frequent belching
- feeling too full
- throwing up blood
People experiencing chest pain may worry they are having a heart attack. However, sternum pain differs from heart attack pain.
People who are having a heart attack experience specific signs before the heart attack itself, whereas most sternum pain starts suddenly.
A heart attack often occurs with the following symptoms:
- pressure, squeezing, or fullness in the center of the chest
- shortness of breath
However, anyone who thinks they are having a heart attack should seek immediate medical attention.
While sternum pain is not usually serious, there are some causes of sternum pain that require immediate medical attention.
A person should seek emergency medical attention if the pain:
- started as a result of direct trauma
- is accompanied by heart attack symptoms
- is persistent and does not improve over time
- is accompanied by intense vomiting or vomiting blood
A person should also speak to a doctor if the pain in their sternum gets worse or does not improve over time.
Physical trauma, costochondritis, and muscle strains are common causes of sternum pain.
Conditions such as pneumonia, pleurisy and GERD can also cause pain in nearby tissue that people may mistake for sternum pain.
Read the article in Spanish.
Sternum Pain: What Is It?
Pain in your sternum, or breastbone, may be caused by a number of things, including inflammation, a joint or collarbone injury, and acid reflux. Pain in your sternum may also happen with a heart attack, but this is more likely if you’re over the age of 40 and have heart disease.
Your sternum, or breastbone, connects the two sides of your rib cage together. It sits in front of many major organs located in your chest and gut, including your heart, lungs, and stomach. As a result, many conditions that don’t necessarily have anything to do with your sternum may cause pain in your sternum and the surrounding area.
Your first reaction to chest pain, especially severe or consistent chest pain, may be to think it’s a heart attack. But in many cases, chest pain has nothing to do with your heart. This is especially true if you’re under age 40 and don’t have any serious health issues or existing conditions.
Sternum pain is actually more likely caused by conditions that have to do with your muscles, your bones, or your digestive tract than with your heart or the sternum itself.
Keep reading to learn the most common reasons for sternum pain and when you should see your doctor.
The most common cause of sternum pain is a condition called costochondritis. This occurs when the cartilage that connects your ribs to your sternum becomes inflamed.
Symptoms of costochondritis include:
- sharp pains or aches on the side of your sternum area
- pain or discomfort in one or more ribs
- pain or discomfort that gets worse when you cough or breathe in deeply
Costochondritis doesn’t always have a specific cause, but it’s most often a result of a chest injury, strain from physical activity, or joint conditions like osteoarthritis. Costochondritis isn’t a serious condition and shouldn’t cause you to be concerned.
See your doctor if the pain persists or if you have other symptoms that might indicate a more serious underlying condition.
Conditions or injuries to the muscles and bones around your sternum can also cause sternum pain.
- joint injury
- collarbone (clavicle) injury
- surgery on the sternum (such as open heart surgery)
These aren’t the only musculoskeletal conditions that may make your sternum hurt, but they’re among the most common.
Sternoclavicular joint injury
The sternoclavicular joint (SC joint) connects the top of your sternum with your collarbone (clavicle). Injury to this joint can cause pain and discomfort in your sternum and in the area in your upper chest where this joint exists.
Common symptoms of injury to this joint include:
- feeling mild pain or having aching and swelling around your upper chest and collarbone area
- hearing pops or clicks in the joint area
- feeling stiff around the joint or not being able to fully move your shoulder
The collarbone is directly connected to your sternum, so injuries, dislocation, fractures, or other trauma to the collarbone can affect the sternum.
Common symptoms of collarbone trauma include:
- bruises or bumps around area of collarbone injury
- intense pain when you try to move your arm upwards
- swelling or tenderness around collarbone area
- pops, clicks, or grinding noises when you lift your arm
- abnormal frontward sagging of your shoulder
Fracturing your sternum can cause a lot of pain, because your sternum is involved in many of your upper body movements. This type of injury is often caused by blunt force injuries to your chest. Examples of this include your seat belt tightening in a car accident or your chest getting hit while you’re playing sports or doing other high-impact physical activity.
Common symptoms include:
- pain when you breathe in or cough
- difficulty breathing
- pops, clicks, or grinding noises when you move your arms
- swelling and tenderness over the sternum
Muscle strain or hernia
Pulling or straining a muscle in your chest can cause pain around your sternum.
Common symptoms of a pulled muscle include:
- pain around the pulled muscle
- discomfort when using the affected muscle
- bruising or tenderness around the affected muscle
A hernia can also cause sternum pain. A hernia happens when an organ is pushed or pulled from the area where it normally sits into a nearby part of the body.
The most common kind is a hiatal hernia. This happens when your stomach moves up past your diaphragm into your chest cavity.
Common symptoms of a hiatal hernia include:
- frequent burping
- having trouble swallowing
- feeling like you ate too much
- throwing up blood
- having black-colored stool
Check out: Muscle strain treatment »
Your sternum sits right in front of several major digestive organs. Conditions that affect your esophagus, stomach, and intestines can all cause sternum pain. Having heartburn or acid reflux after a meal are the most common gastrointestinal causes for sternum pain.
Heartburn happens when acid from your stomach leaks into your esophagus and causes chest pain. It’s common to get right after you eat. Pain usually gets worse when you lie down or bend forward.
Heartburn usually goes away without treatment after a short time.
Check out: Post-meal tips to ease heartburn »
Acid reflux is similar to heartburn, but happens when stomach acid or even what’s in your stomach starts to bother or wear away the lining of your esophagus. It can be part of a chronic condition called gastroesophageal reflux disease.
Symptoms of acid reflux include:
- burning in your chest
- abnormal bitter taste in your mouth
- difficulty swallowing
- throat soreness or hoarseness
- feeling like you have a lump in your throat
Learn more: How to prevent acid reflux and heartburn »
Conditions that affect your lungs, windpipe (trachea), and other parts of your body that help you breathe can cause sternum pain.
Pleurisy happens when your pleura gets inflamed. The pleura is made up of tissue within your chest cavity and around your lungs. In some cases, fluid can build up around this tissue. This is called pleural effusion.
Common symptoms include:
- sharp pain when you breathe in, sneeze, or cough
- feeling like you can’t get enough air
- an abnormal cough
- fever (in rare cases)
Bronchitis happens when the bronchial tubes that bring air into your lungs become inflamed. It often happens when you get the flu or a cold.
Bronchitis pain can also make your sternum hurt as you breathe in and out. It can last only briefly (acute bronchitis) or become a long-term condition (chronic bronchitis) due to smoking or infections.
Common bronchitis symptoms include:
- persistent wet cough that causes you to spit up mucus
- difficulty breathing
- pain or discomfort in your chest
Flu or cold symptoms that can go along with bronchitis include:
- high fever
- runny nose
Check out: 7 home remedies for bronchitis »
Pneumonia happens when your lungs get infected by a virus or bacteria.
Common symptoms of pneumonia include:
- difficulty breathing
- high fever
- persistent cough
Other conditions that affect your gastrointestinal tract or your chest muscles can cause sternum pain.
A stomach ulcer (peptic ulcer) happens when you get a sore on the lining of your stomach or at the bottom of your esophagus.
Symptoms of a stomach ulcer include:
- stomach pain, especially on an empty stomach, that responds to antacids
- feeling bloated
- lack of appetite
A panic attack happens when you suddenly feel fear, as if something dangerous or threatening is happening, with no actual reason to be afraid. It’s often a result of stress or a symptom of mental health conditions, such as generalized anxiety disorder or depression.
Symptoms of a panic attack include:
- feeling like something bad is about to happen
- feeling dizzy or lightheaded
- having trouble breathing or swallowing
- feeling alternately hot and cold
- stomach cramps
- chest pain
Check out: 11 ways to stop a panic attack »
Sternum pain can sometimes be the result of a heart attack. This is much less likely if you’re under age 40 or are in overall good health. They’re more likely to happen if you’re over 40 and have an existing condition, such as heart disease.
A heart attack is life-threatening. You should go to the emergency room right away if you have any symptoms besides sternum pain that may indicate a heart attack, especially if they appear without any obvious cause or if you’ve had a heart attack before.
Symptoms of a heart attack include:
- chest pain in the middle or left side of your chest
- pain or discomfort in your upper body, including your arms, shoulder, and jaw
- feeling dizzy or lightheaded
- having trouble breathing
The more of these symptoms you have, the more likely that you’re having a heart attack.
See your doctor right away if you have heart attack symptoms or symptoms that cause you sharp, consistent pain that gets in the way of your daily life.
You should also see your doctor if you have any of the following symptoms:
- sternum and general chest pain that has no obvious cause
- sweating, dizziness, or nausea with no specific cause
- trouble breathing
- pain that spreads from your chest throughout your upper body
- chest tightness
If you’re experiencing other symptoms and they last for more than a few days, talk to your doctor.
You can find a primary care doctor near you through the Healthline FindCare tool.
Your next steps depend on what condition might be causing your sternum pain and how severe the condition is.
You may just need to take over-the-counter pain medication or change your diet. But you may need long-term treatment if the underlying condition is more serious. In some cases, you may need surgery to treat a heart or gastrointestinal condition.
Once your doctor diagnoses the cause, they can develop a treatment plan that can help relieve the symptoms and causes of your sternum pain.
Why does the chest hurt if it is not cancer, and what to do with chest pains
Most of us associate any pain in the chest with a possible oncological disease. Statistics show that about 70% of women experience chest pain from time to time, but only 15% of cases require serious treatment. This does not mean that you do not need to see a doctor, but it is definitely not worth suspecting the worst thing when going to a mammologist.
Unpleasant sensations in the chest can be different. One mammary gland or both can hurt, the attack is sharp, aching or barely perceptible. The malaise may be the only symptom that causes discomfort, or it may appear along with fever, redness, or other signs. We will tell you why women sometimes have chest pains and what consequences this can lead to.
Do not self-medicate! In our articles, we collect the latest scientific data and the opinions of authoritative health experts. But remember: only a doctor can diagnose and prescribe treatment.
Why can my chest hurt?
More than half of women experience occasional breast discomfort that causes anxiety. In medicine, this symptom is called mastalgia, and it is based on various reasons. If you understand why sometimes the chest hurts a lot, it is easier to exclude the possibility of a disease.
Statistics say that before or during menstruation, many women have chest pain, but they do not know why. Periodic or constant cyclic pains (mastodynia) are associated with menstruation, and we, if the sensations are tolerable, simply get used to them.
Similarly, for some reason, the chest hurts during pregnancy and during menopause. The mammary glands can swell, become very sensitive and hurt. From the point of view of specialists, such a change is usually not associated with any pathology, but is a consequence of hormonal changes occurring in the body. So, for example, up to 75% of cases of chest pain are associated precisely with menstruation and changes in the concentration of hormones that occur during it.
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Lactation also often causes pain. Nursing mothers note that they felt unpleasant symptoms, and then the chest suddenly for some reason stopped hurting. It was a reaction to the release of the hormone oxytocin. The muscle fibers of the milky passages were strongly contracted, milk was added, and a compressive or stabbing pain appeared.
In most cases, treatment during the period of hormonal changes is not required. It is enough to know why the chest hurts before, during or after menstruation. However, it is definitely worth observing your condition; if the nature of pain sensations changes, you definitely need to go to the doctor.
In some cases, women report that for some reason they only have pain in their right or left breasts. Cysts can form in the mammary gland – cavities filled with fluid. These are benign formations that have a different size and shape – round, oval, irregular. Most often, breast cysts occur in women between the ages of 35 and 50, especially in those who are already entering menopause and not taking hormone replacement therapy.
There may be several or even many of them, they develop in one or both mammary glands at once. And women are not even aware of their existence and wonder why their chest hurts. It is very difficult to detect them with the help of self-examination. The cyst is groped when it becomes large enough. But more often, such formations turn out to be an unexpected finding on ultrasound.
In most cases, a cyst is not dangerous, but in very rare cases it can turn into a cancerous tumor. The mammologist should decide on the tactics of observation or removal of the cyst. Therefore, the doctor should ask questions why the chest suddenly began to hurt, although menstruation is not yet expected on the horizon.
At the appointment, the patient may ask why her chest is swollen and sore, and at the same time it has ceased to be homogeneous to the touch. Pain in the mammary gland, as a rule, aching, pulling. Painful seals of various sizes may appear inside. This is due to the fact that, for various reasons, breast tissue is partially replaced by connective tissue, the structure of which is different. Such changes often occur in women between the ages of 30 and 50. But they are neither cancer precursors nor cancer-causing changes.
A popular recommendation for fibrous mastitis, as doctors call it, is to cut down on caffeine and use evening primrose oil. Once the causes of chest pain are identified, they can of course be used. But scientific data confirming the effectiveness of these funds is clearly not enough.
Fibroadenomas are quite common in breast tissues. These are benign tumors that almost never turn into cancer. But they serve as an answer to the question why the chest hurts in a girl under the age of 18. The fact is that fibroadenomas occur more often in young women than in mature women. In children and adolescents, they rank second in terms of the frequency of detected tumors.
The doctor may suggest keeping the fibroadenomas and monitoring them, but surgery is also a possibility. Surgical removal with general anesthesia is usually performed when the lesions become quite large.
Certain medications can cause breast pain. For example, antidepressants and other drugs for the treatment of mental disorders, hormonal drugs (birth control pills), drugs prescribed to support heart and vascular health.
When a woman has prolonged stasis of milk in the ducts, it is no wonder why her breasts hurt for a week. Most likely, the mother developed mastitis – inflammation of the mammary gland. It can be lactational, that is, associated with breastfeeding, as well as non-lactational, which has arisen for other reasons.
With mastitis, an infection enters the body – through sores or cracks in the nipple formed during feeding a child, or skin damage that has appeared due to playing sports, wearing underwear, and so on.
Pain during mastitis is very strong, shooting, and along with pain, weakness develops, the temperature rises, the mammary gland itself turns red and becomes hot. It is also the answer to the problem of why nipples hurt badly on the chest. Inflammation completely fetters one or both mammary glands. The appearance of mastitis is a reason for a quick visit to the doctor. While the inflammatory process has not yet gone too far, you can get by with a course of antibiotics. In more advanced cases, surgery is likely.
The wrong bra can also cause serious discomfort and explain why the underbust area hurts. The cups of a too tight bra sometimes dig in and press hard, rubbing the delicate skin. If the bra is too loose and the chest is heavy, then it can also hurt – due to the lack of necessary support.
You can solve this problem by choosing and adjusting the bra that suits you.
What to do if your chest hurts
When the causes of pain in the mammary glands are clear, you should move on to solving the problem. Here is a list of the most standard and universal recommendations for discomfort:
- regularly visit a mammologist so as not to miss something really important;
- watch your weight – extra pounds can make an already large breast heavier;
- cut down on caffeine and chocolate;
- take B vitamins and vitamin E;
- Express properly without allowing milk to stagnate when breastfeeding;
- Eat properly and in a balanced way.
How to relieve chest pain
If you know why your chest hurts, it is important to get the factors that contribute to this condition under control. First of all, when unpleasant sensations arise, you need to ensure peace for yourself, wait a little with physical activity. During the period of hormonal surges, one should rest more, normalize sleep, give up alcohol and smoking, be outdoors, walk.
To avoid soreness in the chest, wear comfortable underwear made from natural fabrics. With cyclic pain, the doctor will help you choose oral contraceptives or adjust the dosage of those that you are already taking. You can also take an over-the-counter anti-inflammatory medicine to make you feel better, after consulting with a specialist. Also try not to get nervous over trifles and keep your weight normal.
Also try not to get nervous over trifles and keep your weight normal. In order not to wonder why your chest suddenly started to hurt, try to control your salt intake, especially in the second phase of the cycle. And a week before your period, do not drink a lot of strong tea and coffee. If the sensations continue to disturb and become stronger from time to time, you should take a general blood test, examine it for hormone levels, do an ultrasound of the pelvic organs, mammary glands and mammography.
Chest pain: causes and treatment
Experience 11 years
Oncologist, member of the Russian Society of Mammologists, member of RUSSCO (Professional Society of Oncologists-Chemotherapists), member of the European Oncological Society ESMO
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When a woman has chest pains, it is almost impossible to miss this phenomenon. Sharp, sharp or pulling pains can resemble a burning sensation or many tiny pricks. There can be a lot of reasons that provoked the appearance of such a symptom. Many of them are not at all as harmless as they might seem, so you should not ignore the increased soreness of the chest, but seek qualified medical help.
Causes of breast pain in women
Hormonal surges are one of the most common causes, regardless of whether the chest hurts a little or a lot.
As a rule, they do not pose a threat, as they report changes in the phases of the menstrual cycle. So, from about 13 to 17 days of the cycle, chest pain may increase with approaching ovulation. It also often hurts the chest before menstruation. This is due to the fact that due to hormonal changes, the mammary glands begin to retain more fluid, the breasts slightly increase and begin to ache.
However, if you have a feeling that was not characteristic before, it is better to play it safe and consult a doctor.
With a stable monthly cycle and the absence of external factors that can provoke a delay in critical days (strong stress, lack of nutrition and sleep), the chest often hurts with the onset of pregnancy.
To confirm or refute the suspicion, it is recommended to do a pregnancy test or perform an ultrasound scan.
Taking hormonal drugs
Often, oral contraceptives on a hormonal basis sin with this.
Convincing the brain that the level of progesterone is at a consistently high level, when in fact it was not included in the work, contraceptives make the female body feel all the indicators of the cycle conceived by nature: ovulation and pregnancy.
Despite their high reliability, contraceptives have a great impact on the hormonal system of a woman, and therefore you cannot prescribe them yourself. A competent gynecologist will quickly select the drug that is most suitable for a particular patient.
Women often experience chest pain while breastfeeding. This may mean that the baby does not eat all the milk produced by the mother’s body, and it remains in the ducts. In order to prevent stagnation of milk and the formation of an inflammatory process, you should express it yourself.
Another reason may be the wrong grip of the nipple by the baby, the situation will be helped by the nurses of the maternity hospital or the obstetrician-gynecologist.
Often, a woman’s chest hurts during her entry into menopause, which is accompanied by a large-scale hormonal restructuring of the body.
The symptom occurs due to the growth of fat cells at that time, as well as the exacerbation of other diseases, one of the signs of which is that the chest is very sore.
If the lower chest or upper chest hurts, the right or left chest hurts, and in general the chest experiences at least some pain after a blow or bruise, it is recommended to contact a specialist – a traumatologist, mammologist or oncologist – so that he excludes the possibility of serious consequences.
If the chest suddenly began to hurt, and pregnancy, menopause and other common causes are excluded, then most likely one of the diseases occurs, and you should urgently see a gynecologist or oncologist.
- Mastopathy – proliferation of glandular tissue. It is accompanied by seals in the chest area and is treated medically or surgically.
- A cyst is a neoplasm with fluid inside it. Require careful examination by a mammologist, oncologist, gynecologist or surgeon to determine the risks of rupture and prescribe treatment.
- A benign tumor is an overgrowth of tissues, as a result of which the chest hurts, pulls. Often treated with surgery.
- Mastitis is an inflammation associated with disorders in the process of breastfeeding or hormones.
- Breast cancer is a malignant tumor that requires inclusion in the examination of an oncologist.
Treatment of chest pain
It is extremely important to immediately go to a specialist when the first chest pains appear. If the symptom is provoked by any disease, such efficiency will not allow its intensive development.
It is equally important to find a truly competent specialist who works with proven and reliable diagnostic equipment. It is on the accuracy of the testimony of the latter that it largely depends on how accurate the diagnosis will be made and, therefore, the optimal course of treatment is selected.