The word of the day is “costochondritis”

Last year one of our children started complaining about chest pain. Given her young age, we figured it was heart burn and gave her calcium antacids to chew, which didn’t help. When she started to have brief episodes where she’d grab at the left side of her chest and cry out, we took her to the pediatrician, who gave her the once over and declared her fine. “Probably a strained muscle,” the doctor said.

Lately this same child has been getting up in the night and coming into our room, crying about chest pain and saying it hurts to breathe. She seemed so anxious that we just chalked it up to her still getting used to living out in the middle of the woods and getting scared at night.  Still, I worried to my husband that we might be missing something. We decided to discuss it with her doctor at the next appointment.

But yesterday she came home from school in tears, saying her chest had hurt so badly all day at school that she could barely function. She’d gone to the office and they’d looked her over and asked her to try to deal with it for the rest of the day. I got home from work yesterday afternoon to find her sobbing on the couch in my husband’s arms because her chest and left shoulder hurt so bad and her left arm was numb. I called the pediatrician’s after-hours service, who advised me to take her to the emergency room.

We decided to skip our local, small-town hospital and drive in to Ann Arbor to take her to the Pediatric ER at the University of Michigan Hospital. We figured the U has some of the top doctors in the world, so we might as well get this problem solved now.

Have you ever had to watch your child writhe in unbearable pain?  There is no way to describe what that is like for a parent to watch helplessly as your child screams and sobs in agony. All you can do is hold them and pray, but it is the most frightening, awful feeling in the world.

After running a bunch of tests, the diagnosis was costochondritis, a word I had never even heard before:

Costochondritis is an inflammation of the cartilage that connects a rib to the breastbone (sternum) — a junction known as the costosternal joint. Pain caused by costochondritis may mimic that of a heart attack or other heart conditions.

The cause is not always known but can include any of the following:

  • Injury. A blow to the chest could cause costochondritis.
  • Physical strain. Heavy lifting and strenuous exercise have been linked to costochondritis, as has severe coughing.
  • Arthritis. In some people, costochondritis has been linked to specific problems, such as osteoarthritis, rheumatoid arthritis and ankylosing spondylitis.
  • Joint infection. The rib joint itself can become infected by viruses, bacteria or fungi. Examples include tuberculosis, syphilis and aspergillosis.
  • Tumors. Noncancerous and cancerous tumors also can cause costochondritis. Cancer may travel to the joint from another part of the body, such as the breast, thyroid or lung.

The pediatrician at U of M also told us that he sees it when girls go through growth spurts, and our girl has been growing like a weed, in addition to running, jumping, falling off her bike, crashing on her ice skates, and who knows what other grievous playground injuries. He told us that the pain can be very intense, and in Googling around today, I’ve found that adults who suffer from it can deal with crippling pain for weeks or even months.  I truly pray that won’t be her fate, though.

As a little PSA, I thought I would alert other parents reading here that if your child complains about chest pain, you might want to ask the pediatrician if it could be costochondritis.  In most cases the only treatment is anti-inflammatory medications and applying heat to the affected area to soothe the pain. In addition to that, I am a big believer in using touch to ease pain and help with healing.  According the University of Miami School of Medicine, there is clinical evidence to support my belief that touch decreases pain:

Dr. Field explained that the benefits of touch seem to stem largely from its ability to reduce levels of cortisol, a stress hormone manufactured by the adrenal glands. This was measured in two dozen studies. She said that touching with moderate-pressure (a firm handshake) stimulates activity in the vagus nerve, one of the 12 cranial nerves in the brain, which in turn slows the heart and decreases the production of stress hormones including cortisol.

Here is an example of the kind of research findings that support the healing power of touch:

Children with mild to moderate juvenile rheumatoid arthritis who were given massages by their parents 15 minutes per day for one month experienced less anxiety and lower cortisol levels. Over a 30-day period, parents, kids and their physicians reported less pain overall in the children.

By the time we got home at 1:00 a.m., we were exhausted, but nevertheless I warmed up a rice snake in the microwave for her to hold on her chest, and then I lay beside her on her bed, massaging her back, arms and legs.  If you don’t have a rice snake, they’re easy to make:

I also recommend having a supply of funny bear videos at the ready, as they provide a welcome distraction for an ailing child. To my knowledge no one has studied the healing power of funny animal videos, but laughter is well-known as the best medicine. 🙂


18 thoughts on “The word of the day is “costochondritis”

  1. I am glad that I was able to make a contribution. If this is a rib cage issue, I would have thought that it would hurt to laugh. Since it doesn’t, here’s Mauve’s blog. She allows me unrestricted bear video posting and there are a lot of good ones over there.

    Also, for her consideration, elephants. He has a number of these on his channel.


  2. Costochondritis is also correlated heavily with anxiety. It is shorthand for “chest pain of unknown etiology.”

    Sometime providers use it synonymously with somatoform processes, which is a little to simplistic, but with a girl her age, I would be concerned about the stress piece.

    * I am a doctor and everything, but this is not to be construed as an attempt to assess, diagnose, or treat an illness. Consult your physician. 🙂


    • I have an 11 year old daughter who was diagnosed with costochondritis in May. She has had one episode every month sense some are mild some are bad she also has anxiety issues and takes medication for it. I have been discussed it with her doctor but he does not seam considered with it. It is so upsetting to see your child in pain. We do the Ibuprofen and heating pad to help. I have tried to do as much research as I can find. My question is is this something most children grow out of? And how long does it usually last?


  3. Thanks for the prayers and well-wishes, everyone. She’s really suffering. 😦 The pain comes and goes but when it flairs up, she’s beside herself.

    @ Scott
    She’s only 9, so it’s not a stress thing. They seem to think it might be growth related and exacerbated by having a cold and coughing a lot.

    But you know what’s odd is she has been really anxious, especially at night, since we moved here at the beginning of September. I’m not sure why; the house is isolated in that it sits in the middle of a ten-acre woods. The house is also a lot bigger than our previous home and that kind of creeps her out; she’s used to everyone being much closer together. Anyway, she’s been complaining about chest pain and nightmares at night since we moved in here and wanting to sleep in bed with us or with all the lights on. Any suggestions?


    • Well, at that age, her defenses are still not developed. Play therapy would probably get to it eventually.

      You could sit down with her and make 2 lists. Stuff I like about the new place and stuff I don’t like. Maybe 5 things each list. It would be less threatening if everyone in the family worked on their own, so she won’t know it’s about her.

      She may be wanting to tell you about something scary around the place or may have it just under the surface. It might take a game or fun project to get it to the surface.


    • Is your daughter still having episode? My daughter is 11 and started having them in May she has had 4 total one every month. I’m hoping they will stop soon. I feel for you and your daughter it is so hard to watch your child in pain not be able to help! We do the Ibuprofen and heating pad. I will be praying for you and your daughter!


      • Hello Jerilynn!
        I’m sorry to hear your daughter has been suffering from this, too!

        My daughter’s costochondritis seems to have calmed down a lot. Her big episode seems to have been caused by a bad chest cold and coughing, which irritated the cartilage along her breastbone. She had one minor flare up this summer when she had some congestion from either a mild cold or summer allergies, but it was nowhere near as bad as the one this past spring. My concern is that it might come back with the winter cold/flu season.

        It seems like comfort care is all we can provide; if it’s bad, we give ibuprofen, but otherwise we just do the heating pads, gentle massage of her arms,legs, or back, and audio books (she loves to listen to stories on CD, which we get from the library, or old children’s stories that can be found online for free at

        I pray your daughter’s symptoms will subside and not return!


  4. Anyway, she’s been complaining about chest pain and nightmares at night since we moved in here and wanting to sleep in bed with us or with all the lights on. Any suggestions?

    At the risk of sounding superstitious, you may want to go through and pray in every room for the protection of your house and family. If you don’t have a cross or some Bible verses decorating the walls you may want to rectify that too. Just to make sure that her nightmares are originating within her own mind and not evidence of the devil creeping uninvited into your home. Don’t misunderstand that I think your house is possessed or has ghosts or anything. Just suggesting it may be worthwhile.


    • This is a good point. We are Orthodox and had our priest come and perform the rite of blessing a new house. I seem to remember that Sunshine is Anglican, so this is probably available.


    • Wonderful advice. We recently moved into our home and I put up verses in every room but the restrooms.

      In addition, we are a big family. My younger girls (we have five daughters) would be lost if they slept alone. They have shared a room since they were weaned from nursing.

      Sunshine, I hope your daughter gets well soon. One of my girls is 9, almost 10 this month, and I couldn’t bare to see her in pain. I’m praying for healing, physically and emotionally. Sometimes the emotion part is the hardest.


    • I agree with your suggestion. I used to be much more regular in praying through our home; I’ve been negligent in this area since we’ve moved. I used to pray regularly and mark the door frames with oil in the sign of the cross. And I haven’t hung the several wall crosses we own up since moving in, either. Thank for the reminder.


  5. In making this move, has your daughter gone from having roommates to sleeping alone? Has she given up her stuffed animals? At nine, if she wants to climb into bed with her parents, she has to be feeling unsafe big time.
    I still have my bear. My Dad never gave his up. Commenter Maeve still has hers and watches movies with her.


  6. My third daughter would occasionally come into bed with Mrs. Bubba and I until she was about nine or ten, actually. Just wanted to cuddle me, sometimes was afraid about something or other.

    Cause of this? Like Scott said, talk to someone qualified and THERE, not me. But that said, been there. You’ll treasure those cuddles in the next few years.


  7. @Sunshine

    It’s been a couple of years now, and not sure if you’ll even see this, but I just came across your blog and I am very curious how your daughter is doing now, and how long her illness lasted.

    My son is I 7, and was diagnosed with costochondritis about a month ago. He has massive pain that comes and goes, causing shortness of breath, and very little function that he can do.
    Our doctor said he has gone through a huge growth spurt of 2 inches, as well as rapid weight loss, within 5-6 months.
    The doctor also cracked his back, like a chiropractor, which actually gave my son some relief.
    He is a senior this year and has missed a great deal of school because of this.

    So, if you do happen to see this, I’m curious as to how long it lasted for your daughter? It is beyond awful to see your child suffering in this way, and I hope she has fully recovered.


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