What Causes Sternum Popping and What Are The Treatment Options?

Sternum Popping is a condition characterized by a cracking noise that is heard from the sternum which in layman terms is called the breastbone. This noise is normally caused by the joints in between the ribs and the breastbone. Both these bones are connected through the sternal cartilage which starts from the ribcage and connects with the sternum. The cartilages that emanate from the seven ribs meet the sternum at the sternocostal joint. These cartilages also meet with the ribs at the sternochondral joint. It is these two joints that are mainly involved in cases of Sternum Popping.[1,2]

The noise can at times be associated with pain around the sternum with swelling and tenderness around the area. Anatomically speaking, the sternum is a bone located at the midpoint of the chest where the ribs meet. Sternum Popping can be a discomforting condition especially when it happens for the first time. However alarming it may be Sternum Popping is a benign condition and is not a cause for concern. Most of the times, the popping is produced with movement.[1,2]

Sternum Popping does not require any specific treatment but if it is accompanied by swelling and tenderness then a checkup is useful to identify the underlying cause.[1,2] This article highlights some of the potential causes and the treatment options for Sternum Popping.

What Causes Sternum Popping?

Sternum Popping can be heard even with everyday activities like bending or stretching. Sometimes, deep breathing may also produce the popping sound. The sound is quite similar to that of the knee or the hips popping. Some of the causes of Sternum Popping include:[2]

Muscle Spasms: Muscle Spasms is quite a common condition. In fact, any muscle of the body can go into spasm. Sternum Popping can occur if the muscles around the chest, back, and shoulders go into spasm. This happens because when these muscle spasms then it cause the joints and tissues around the area to shift causing the popping sound. If the popping is recurrent and is accompanied by pain then it is recommended to visit a physician to identify a cause for the muscle spasm.[2]

Strains/Sprains: This is yet another common cause for Sternum Popping. The reason behind this is that a strained muscle or a connective tissue will be slightly out of their place and even swell up. This puts pressure on the surrounding structures causing the popping sound.[2]

The popping sound in such cases will be accompanied by pain which will be far beyond the affected muscle or joint. For minor cases of muscle strain rest and antiinflammatories are good enough to stop the popping sound. Severe strains may require further treatment for which a visit to a physician is recommended.[2]

Fracture: Sternal fracture is another cause for Sternum Popping. In fact, it is one of the symptoms for sternal fracture. It is generally caused due to a motor vehicle collision or a sporting injury where the individual is directly hit on the chest. Sternal fracture is an extremely painful condition and will be associated with other symptoms like pain with breathing and swallowing.[2]

There have been some cases documented where sternal fractures have affected the lungs or the heart. Thus an individual who has had a chest injury and starts to hear Sternum Popping then it is highly recommended to consult with a physician for an accurate diagnosis and treatment plan. For severe cases of sternal fracture surgery may be required to fix it.[2]

Arthritis: This is a condition which is quite rare when it comes to the sternum area. However, it is quite possible that the sternum gets affected with arthritis. This can only be observed in people where the arthritis has spread far beyond the original site. The arthritis will cause the popping sound due to gradual degeneration of the joint.[2]

Costochondritis: This is a condition characterized by inflammation of the cartilages throughout the ribcage. This inflammation can cause severe pain in the chest which some may believe it to be caused due to a myocardial infarction. Costochondritis is also one of the causes of Sternum Popping. It is a condition which requires medical attention as a heart attack needs to be ruled out since the symptoms are quite similar.[2]

Panic Attacks: There are many physical symptoms that a person with anxiety or panic disorder will experience. Chest pain and Sternum Popping are one of the many symptoms. This is because of increased tension in the chest during periods of stress in a person with anxiety or panic disorder. This tension is what results in Sternum Popping along with pain.[2]

It is always advisable for a person with anxiety and panic disorder to speak to a psychiatrist or psychologist and work a coping mechanism to decrease stress and manage the symptoms of a panic attack.[2]

Surgical Procedure: At times, a surgical procedure around the sternum or ribcage can also cause Sternum Popping. It has been described in various literatures that for the first few months after a cardiac surgery it is quite possible for the patient to hear popping sound from the chest. This is because as a result of the surgery the sternum may just move a little bit with activities done using the upper half of the body. This slight shift is what causes the popping sound.[2]

What Can Be Done To Deal With Sternum Popping?

As stated, Sternum Popping is absolutely benign and is not a cause of concern. However, if it is associated with other symptoms like swelling, tenderness, and pain then a physician should be consulted to identify a cause and start treatment for it. During the process of identifying the etiology of Sternum Popping, the physician may begin treatment with medications to calm down the swelling and pain.[2]

Depending on the cause, the physician will prescribe NSAIDs and if the pain is mild then just over the counter pain relievers will suffice. Physicians will also recommend application of ice to the affected area for 15-20 minutes two to three times a day to calm down the swelling and inflammation. This is particularly helpful in cases of strain/sprain injuries causing Sternum Popping. Once the inflammation resolves, the popping noise automatically goes away.[2]

Rest is recommended in cases where an injury to the area is the cause of Sternum Popping. The individual will have to refrain from doing any strenuous activities till the time the injury heals.[2]

In conclusion, Sternum Popping is a benign condition that has numerous causes which have been delineated in detail above. There is no treatment necessary just for the popping noise unless there are associated symptoms of pain and swelling. In such cases, it is important to identify the cause for it and start treatment accordingly.[1,2]

For cases of minor strain, sprain, or injuries over the counter antiinflammatories are good enough for treatment. If the sprain is severe then prescription strength NSAIDs will have to be given. Once the underlying condition is treated, Sternum Popping goes away on its own. In other instances, just rest and avoidance of strenuous activities takes care of Sternum Popping.[1,2]

However, if Sternum Popping is associated with other symptoms like chest pain, swelling, and tenderness it is better to consult a physician to identify a potential cause and start treatment for it.[1,2]

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