Is this cause for concern?
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.
Costochondritis is the most common cause
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.
What other musculoskeletal conditions cause sternum pain?
Conditions or injuries to the muscles and bones around your sternum can also cause sternum pain.
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
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:
having trouble swallowing
feeling like you ate too much
throwing up blood
having black-colored stool
Check out: Muscle strain treatment »
Which gastrointestinal conditions cause sternum pain?
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
throat soreness or hoarseness
feeling like you have a lump in your throat
Learn more: How to prevent acid reflux and heartburn »
Which respiratory conditions cause sternum pain?
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
pain or discomfort in your chest
Flu or cold symptoms that can go along with bronchitis include:
Check out: 7 home remedies for bronchitis »
Pneumonia happens when your lungs get infected by a virus or bacteria.
Common symptoms of pneumonia include:
Can other conditions cause sternum pain?
Other conditions that affect your gastrointestinal tract or your chest muscles can cause sternum pain.