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Sternum Anatomy, Location, Function, Pain, Injuries

Your sternum is a bone that’s located in the middle of your chest. It’s also sometimes referred to as the breastbone.

Your sternum protects the organs of your torso from injury and also serves as a connection point for other bones and muscles.

Keep reading to learn more about your sternum, its function, and what can cause pain in this part of your chest.

Your sternum is a flat bone that’s located in the middle of your torso. If you place your fingers at the center of your chest, you can feel it. The sternum has three parts:

  • Manubrium. This is the top part of your sternum. Your collarbone and your first set of ribs connect here. The bottom of the manubrium shares a border with the body of the sternum. Your second set of ribs connects at this point.
  • Body. The body is the middle part of the sternum and is also the longest. Your third through seventh set of ribs are connected to the body of the sternum via cartilage.
  • Xiphoid process. This is the lower part of the sternum. Its shape can vary. The xiphoid process is composed mostly of cartilage, and it slowly begins to calcify as you age.

Your sternum serves two very important functions:

  • Protection. Your sternum, along with your ribs, works to protect the organs of your torso, such as your heart, lungs, and chest blood vessels.
  • Support. Your sternum also provides a connection point for other parts of your skeletal system, including your collarbone and most of your ribs. Some muscles of your chest and upper abdomen also connect to the sternum.

There are a variety of conditions that can affect your sternum, leading to pain and discomfort. Let’s dive deeper into some of the most common causes of sternum pain.

Costochondritis

Costochondritis is when the cartilage that connects your ribs to your sternum becomes inflamed. This can be caused by an injury or from a muscle strain, arthritis, or infection.

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If you have costochondritis, the main symptom is chest pain or tenderness. Physical activity, coughing, stretching, or breathing deeply can make the pain feel worse.

Costochondritis is treated using pain medications such as nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs). If your costochondritis is severe or recurring, physical therapy may also be recommended.

Muscle strains

A muscle strain happens when a muscle or tendon is injured. Muscle strains can also affect your chest. This can often happen due to the overuse of a muscle from working out, playing sports, or even excessive coughing.

If you’ve strained a muscle in your chest, you may notice:

  • chest pain or tenderness
  • bruising
  • swelling
  • limited range of motion
  • weakness in the affected area

Initial treatment involves the RICE method, which stands for:

  • Rest. Take a break from moving the injured muscle for a day or two, then proceed with gentle movement.
  • Ice. Apply a cold compress to the injured area for the first 2 days following a muscle strain.
  • Compression. Wrap a bandage around the injured area to prevent fluid buildup, which in turn can help minimize swelling.
  • Elevation. Best suited to muscle strains in the arms or legs, this involves elevating the injury above the level of the heart to help fluid drain away from the injury.

Over-the-counter pain medication may also help with pain and swelling. Severe injuries may need surgery.

Sternal fracture

A sternal fracture is when there’s a break in your sternum. The most common cause of this is blunt force trauma from a car accident. Other potential causes include falls and sports injuries.

Some of the symptoms of a sternal fracture include:

  • chest pain or tenderness, which can get worse when coughing or breathing deeply
  • bruising
  • swelling
  • shortness of breath

Treatment depends on how severe the injury is. It typically involves rest and pain relief while you heal. In more severe cases, surgery may be needed to put the bone back in place.

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Sternoclavicular joint problems

The sternoclavicular joint is the area where your collarbone meets your sternum. Although uncommon, sometimes you can develop joint problems in this area due to injury, arthritis, or infections.

Some indicators of sternoclavicular joint issues include:

Many times, a sternoclavicular problem can be treated conservatively. This involves:

  • medications for relief of pain and swelling
  • immobilization of the affected area
  • avoiding activities that aggravate joint pain

Surgery may be needed in severe cases.

Collarbone injuries

Since your collarbone is connected to your sternum, injury to this bone may also lead to pain or discomfort around your sternum. Collarbone injuries often occur due to things like falls, accidents, or sports injuries.

Some of the symptoms of a collarbone injury include:

  • pain or tenderness at the affected area that gets worse when you try to move your arm
  • bruising
  • swelling
  • a crunching or crackling sound when you move your arm
  • a bump or lump that you can feel in the affected area

In mild to moderate cases, a collarbone injury is often treated with:

  • medications to ease pain and swelling
  • support using an arm sling
  • physical therapy exercises

More severe injuries may require surgery.

Other causes

The most common causes of sternum pain are musculoskeletal issues. However, there are other possible causes that aren’t related to injuries of the muscles or bones.

Other causes can include:

If you have lingering pain or discomfort in the area of your sternum, make an appointment to see your doctor. They can diagnose the cause of the pain and work with you to put together a treatment plan.

Remember that chest pain is also associated with…

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