Intercostal Muscle Strain: Muscle Spasm In Rib Cage

Intercostal muscle strain is a type of soft tissue injury caused by overstretching or tearing the muscles between your ribs. It usually occurs as a result of repetitive movements such as lifting heavy objects, coughing, or sneezing. This can lead to pain and tenderness in your chest area that may limit your ability to perform everyday tasks such as breathing deeply and reaching overhead. If left untreated, the pain from an intercostal muscle strain can become chronic and interfere with your quality of life.

Intercostal Muscles Anatomy: Breathing And Rib Stability

The intercostal muscles are located between each of the ribs, forming a band that runs along the entire length of your rib cage. These muscles help to keep the ribs stable and facilitate breathing by contracting during inhalation and relaxing during exhalation. They also play a role in movements such as side bending, twisting, and reaching.

Symptoms Of Intercostal Muscle Strain

The following are common symptoms of intercostal muscle strains:

  • Pain In Rib Cage Area: Pain is typically localized to the area between your ribs. The pain may feel sharp and intense or dull and achy. It may worsen with deep breathing and movements such as coughing, sneezing, or reaching.
  • Difficulty In Breathing: The pain may make it difficult to take deep breaths. As a result, your breathing will be more shallow, causing your chest area to feel tight or restricted. This makes it more difficult to do activities such as running or swimming.
  • Tenderness: You may experience tenderness to the touch in the area between your ribs.
  • Swelling: The strain can also cause swelling in the area of your chest due to inflammation of the intercostal muscles.
  • Muscle Tightness: You may also experience tightness in the affected muscles, making moving difficult.

Different Intercostal Muscle Strain Pain Locations

Intercostal muscle strains can cause pain in various areas of your body. This is because the muscles that make up the ribcage are connected to numerous other muscles, ligaments, and tendons in your body. Pain may be felt in your back, upper ribs, lower ribs, abdomen, or shoulder blade area due to an intercostal muscle strain. Additionally, you may experience referred pain elsewhere, such as in your shoulder or arm, since the nerve endings from the intercostal muscles travel to various other parts of the body.


The following are common causes of intercostal muscle strain:

Direct Trauma Or Chest Injury 

Direct trauma or chest injury can cause intercostal muscle strain. This could be due to a direct blow to the chest, such as in contact sports or a car accident. It could also be due to a more gradual injury like overstretching or repetitive movement.

Poor Posture And Body Mechanics

Poor posture and body mechanics can cause the muscles between your ribs to become overstretched. For example, slouching while sitting or standing for long periods can lead to muscle strain due to sustained contraction of the intercostal muscles.

Weakened Or Overused Muscles

Weakened or overused muscles can be more likely to experience intercostal muscle strain. This is especially true if you’re involved in activities that involve repetitive motions, such as rowing or swimming. These types of activities can cause the muscles to become weak and fatigued, making them more vulnerable to injury.

Coughing Or Sneezing

Coughing or sneezing can also cause intercostal muscle strain. This is because these activities require the contraction of the muscles between your ribs to expel air from your lungs. If you already have weakened or overused muscles, coughing or sneezing can put additional stress on them and cause an injury.


If you’re experiencing any of the above symptoms, it’s essential to seek medical attention immediately. Your doctor will evaluate your symptoms and then do a physical exam to determine whether or not you have an intercostal muscle strain. This may include checking for tenderness in the area between your ribs and assessing your range of motion in the affected area. Your doctor will also likely order imaging tests such as X-rays or an MRI to further assess the extent of the injury. These imaging tests will show any signs of muscle damage or torn ligaments.  

Intercostal Muscle Strain Treatments

Minor intercostal muscle strains will typically heal on their own with proper rest. Generally speaking, most doctors will take a conventional approach to treating such strains by recommending one or more of the following treatments:

Pain Medications

Your doctor may prescribe over-the-counter (OTC) pain medications such as ibuprofen or acetaminophen to help reduce any discomfort. Although such medications can help address any pain you’re feeling temporarily, remember that they won’t actually speed up your recovery time. Don’t assume that just because you no longer feel the strain, you can resume your activities as usual — you may end up exacerbating the injury as a result.

Cold or Hot Therapy

Applying a cold or hot pack to the affected area can help ease pain and reduce swelling. Cold therapy is recommended for the first 48 hours after the injury to help reduce inflammation. You can do cold therapy by wrapping an ice pack in a towel and applying it to the affected area. After 48 hours, you can switch to hot therapy, such as applying a heated pad or taking a warm bath. Doing so will help relax the muscles and improve circulation, allowing for better healing.


In some cases, your doctor may suggest a corticosteroid injection to help reduce inflammation and pain. These injections are typically used in cases where the pain is severe. However, be aware that such injections are invasive, which means there is a risk of complications, such as bruising or infection.

Neuragenex Neurofunctional Pain Management For Strained Intercostal Muscles

Our protocol involves the use of a Neuragenex Neurofunctional Pain Management approach to treating strained intercostal muscles. This means that instead of using conventional treatment solutions to mask the symptoms, we focus on relieving the underlying cause of pain to promote recovery. To achieve this, we use several different treatment modalities that are drug-free, non-chiropractic, non-invasive, and non-surgical. These include the following:


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IV Therapy

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Lifestyle Counseling

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Intercostal Muscle Strain Exercises

If you have a mild intercostal muscle strain, there are certain exercises you can do to help promote healing and reduce discomfort. Here are a few tips to keep in mind when doing these exercises:

  • Start slowly and take your time. Don’t rush into strenuous activities, as this can make the injury worse.
  • Warm up before exercising by doing a few minutes of light stretching. This will help reduce tension in the muscles and prepare them for activity.
  • Focus on a range of motion exercises such as arm circles, shoulder rolls, and deep breathing. This will help improve the flexibility and strength of the muscles between your ribs.
  • Do core stabilization exercises that target the abdominal and back muscles, as these support the intercostal muscles.
  • Refrain from any activities that require repeated chest movements or jerky motions, as these can be too strenuous for a strained muscle.
  • Avoid activities that cause pain or discomfort. If you are in pain during your exercise routine, take a break and let the muscle rest.
  • Don’t overdo it. Listen to your body and only do what you can handle. If the pain persists or worsens, contact your doctor immediately.
  • Make sure to stretch after your exercises to help your muscles relax and recover. Doing this can also help improve the flexibility of the muscles between your ribs.

Seek An Effective Treatment For Persistent Strains

Intercostal muscle strains can be painful and debilitating. Although mild to moderate cases of this injury may resolve on their own with rest, it is vital to seek medical help if the pain persists or worsens. Although conventional treatments such as medications and hot/cold therapy can be used for symptom relief, they do not address the underlying cause of the injury. To truly heal and reduce discomfort, we provide a whole-person approach to address the root cause of your pain and help you achieve long-term relief.

Take action now and reclaim your comfort and mobility!

Explore how Neurofunctional Pain Management can help.