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Costochondritis: The Pain That Mimics A Heart Attack

by Stella Robinson

You wake in the night with gripping chest pain on your left side. It worsens as you take deep breaths or shift your position in bed. Almost as dramatic as the pain is your fearful thought: am I having a heart attack? As terrifying as this scenario is, your doctor may inform you that rather than having a heart attack, you have a condition called costochondritis. Between 13 and 36 percent of adults experiencing chest pain are diagnosed with costochondritis, also called chest wall pain or costosternal syndrome.

The basics

Costochondritis occurs when the cartilage that joins the ribs to the breastbone becomes inflamed. For unknown reasons, it is only present on the left side of the chest. The pain caused by the inflammation can be quite severe, and because it is on only the left side of the chest people often assume they are having a heart attack. Coughing, laughing, or taking deep breaths can aggravate the pain.

The causes

Although costochondritis can be caused by certain infections (viral, bacterial, and fungal) or injuries, it often does not have a distinct cause. It can show up suddenly and last for weeks or even months. Patients are often frustrated when the condition reappears. Unfortunately, there is nothing that can be done to prevent future episodes.

The diagnosis

Before diagnosing a patient with costochondritis, a doctor must rule out cardiac issues. Therefore, he or she will run a battery of tests such as a chest x-ray, CT scan, electrocardiogram, and stress test. When these procedures show a healthy heart but chest pain continues, costochondritis may be the proper diagnosis.

The demographics

About 70% of costochondritis patients are women, and it is most common in women over the age of 40. It is linked to fibromyalgia; in fact, anywhere from 6% to 70% of fibromyalgia patients have costochondritis. However, children and men can develop the condition as well.

The treatment

Because costochondritis involves inflammation, the most common treatment is anti-inflammatory medications (such as prescription strength NSAIDs). If the pain is especially severe, a doctor may prescribe narcotic pain relievers. Antidepressants can alleviate anxiety or insomnia that may accompany the pain. Other treatment measures include stretching exercises and steroid injections.

If you experience chest pain, always seek medical attention. You'll want a doctor to check it out. If cardiac tests show that your heart is healthy, ask your doctor whether the pain could be a result of costochondritis. With a proper diagnosis, you don't have to worry about whether or not you are having a heart attack. With proper pain relief measures, you will feel better soon.