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How to Treat Costochondritis With Acupuncture and TCM


By Qineng Tan, L.Ac. Ph.D. and Xiaomei Cai, L.Ac., Ph.D.


sternum pain, chest pain
Chest pain where the ribs meet the breast bone can be Costochondritis.

Chest pain? Rib pain, sternum pain? These can be costochondritis symptoms, caused by inflammation of the cartilage that connects the ribs to the sternum. Acupuncture and TCM can provide costochondritis treatment to relieve pain and inflammation.

Costochondritis is a pain condition caused by inflammation of cartilage in the rib cage. It can be scary, because the pain can feel like a heart attack or a symptom of heart disease. 

It is quite common for people who are experiencing costochondritis pain to visit the emergency room complaining of chest pain. Almost 10% of ER visits are related to chest pain symptoms, and a significant number of those turn out to be related to something other than heart problems.

Sometimes called “chest wall pain syndrome,” or costosternal syndrome, costochondritis is considered a syndrome because it presents as a set of symptoms that often does not have a clear cause.

Possible causes of costochondritis include:

  • Trauma or injury to the chest or ribs
  • Persistent cough
  • Repeated bouts of vomiting
  • Chest or lung infection
  • Allergies that affect the lungs
  • Fibromyalgia
  • Tietze syndrome

Suddenly doing some kind of heavy labor or intense workout that you’re not used to, that causes you to be winded, could cause inflammation of the chest. Playing contact sports in which you may be tackled or collide with another player or get hit hard with a ball in the chest could also cause costochondritis.

Tietze syndrome is a rare condition in which the cartilage connecting the ribs to the breastbone becomes inflamed and swollen. With Tietze syndrome, the pain and swelling in the chest is usually higher up, around the second and third ribs.

Costochondritis pain usually is felt more on the left side of the chest, radiating outward, and there isn’t any swelling involved. 

Rib pain may be exacerbated when lying down, which can make it difficult to sleep comfortably.

Costochondritis is most commonly experienced by people in middle age (40-50s), but it can occur in children and adolescents, as well as adults.

In most cases, costochondritis is temporary. However, costochondritis pain can limit your activities and be debilitating for weeks, or even months. One study showed that up to a third of adults reported pain persisting beyond a year.

Acupuncture has been shown to help alleviate costochondritis pain, often in a matter of weeks.

Costochondritis Symptoms

Costochondritis pain can range anywhere from a slight tenderness to severe chest pain. In mild cases, the pain may go away in a matter of days, but in other cases, the pain can become serious.

Symptoms of costochondritis include:

  1. Sharp chest pain
  2. Chest pressure, chest ache, tenderness in breastbone
  3. Pain on the left side of chest, to the left of the breastbone
  4. Rib pain in more than one rib
  5. Pain radiating to shoulders and/or arms
  6. Chest pain when coughing, sneezing, or taking a deep breath
  7. Pain in chest when reaching up or twisting the torso
  8. Rib pain when lying down
  9. Pain when hugging someone
  10. Pain when putting on a seatbelt


Medical Diagnosis and Costochondritis Treatment

chest pain, rib pain, Costochondritis
Pain near the sternum can be Costochondritis.

Other than the doctor palpating the area around your breastbone and ribs, there is no specific test to determine if you have costochondritis.

Chest pain can be an indicator of a variety of health conditions, including heart problems or lung problems, so it is always important to get it checked out with a healthcare professional. They will rule out other problems by ordering an EKG or chest X-ray in order to get to a diagnosis of costochondritis.

Treatment will consist of recommendations for ways to alleviate pain. Over-the-counter nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) such as ibuprofen (Advil, Motrin IB) or naproxen (Aleve) can help reduce inflammation and pain.

In cases of more severe or persistent pain, a doctor may prescribe stronger pain medications such as prescription-strength Motrin or muscle relaxers.

Applying heat or cold packs to the affected area can help reduce inflammation and alleviate pain. Some individuals find relief by alternating between heat and cold therapy.

In cases where pain is severe and not responding to other treatments, corticosteroid injections directly into the affected area may provide temporary relief by reducing inflammation.

Acupuncture treatment is a great way to relieve pain and reduce inflammation, without the side effects that can result from using pain medications or steroids for several weeks or months.


Can Acupuncture Help Costochondritis?

Adolescents and children can have costochrondritis.
Costochrondritis can happen during adolescence.

Acupuncture has been used for many centuries to treat pain and inflammation. Now, research is able to show how and why this modality is able to regulate inflammatory responses. Acupuncture affects the nerve signaling that produces hormones like dopamine and can reduce the production of cytokine storms. This is why acupuncture can help relieve inflammation and chest pain of costochondritis.

In TCM theory, pain and inflammation are usually considered to occur because of stagnation, or stasis, of blood and/or Qi (life force energy). The same symptoms can occur in different individuals because of different imbalances in the organs systems that are causing the blockages and different pathogenic factors, such as excess heat, dampness, etc. 

Costochondritis inflammation can occur due to dampness and stagnation of Qi in the liver, spleen, and/or kidney systems. Depending on each patient’s specific situation, your acupuncturist will choose acupoints to open channels, clear dampness, heat, and phlegm. This allows for Qi and blood to flow smoothly again, cooling down the inflammation and relieving pain.

One case study of six women who were treated for costochondritis pain with acupuncture found that all patients reported improvement and were able to discontinue taking OTC pain medications.

One pediatric study looked at young students suffering from costochondritis; they were missing school, limiting their sports, dance, and work, and having trouble sleeping. After 4-6 weeks of acupuncture treatment, these patients reported a significant reduction in pain, and were able to resume their usual activities.

Not only is acupuncture treatment effective for relief of costochondritis pain; it can work quickly. In many cases, patients feel better after one or two treatments.

Acupuncture Near Me for Costochondritis in Los Angeles Area

Dr. Tan and Dr. Cai of Art of Wellness Acupuncture in West L.A. have been helping treat pain conditions for over 35 years. Our office is a home away from home where patients are able to relax and find relief from pain and inflammation. If you or someone you love is experiencing chest pain due to costochondritis, please do not hesitate to come in for a consultation.

*This article is for education from the perspective of Traditional Chinese Medicine only. The education provided by this article is not approved by FDA to diagnose, prevent, treat and cure human diseases. It should not stop you from consulting with your physician for your medical conditions. Traditional Chinese Medicine is based on Qi, which is an invisible force that usually cannot be observed by modern science. Because science focuses on testing ideas about the natural world with evidence obtained through observation, these aspects of acupuncture can’t be studied by science. Therefore acupuncture and Chinese herbs are often not supported by double-blind, randomized trials, and they are considered alternative medicine therapies in the United States.

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