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. 🙂