When intense chest pain sends you running to the Emergency Room, it’s a huge relief to hear the doctor says it’s not a heart attack and instead diagnose costochondritis or Tietze syndrome. But what are costochondritis and Tietze syndrome? How do you get better? Helpful answers are surprisingly hard to find.
Researching the conditions after being diagnosed with Tietze syndrome last summer, I found detailed information was elusive. Perhaps it’s because both conditions are considered medically “benign,” which in this case seems to mean they’ll make you really miserable but are unlikely to kill you.
What is costochondritis?
There’s more information out there about costochondritis, which Mayo Clinic defines as “an inflammation of the cartilage that connects a rib to the breastbone (sternum) — a junction known as the costosternal joint.” Tests may be run to exclude other problems, but costochondritis is diagnosed by physical exam because there are no imaging or lab tests for it.
What is Tietze syndrome?
In its description of costochondritis, Mayo Clinic adds that when swelling is also present, the condition is referred to as Tietze syndrome. This makes it sound like the two conditions are related. But, Web MD insists that they are distinctly different. And the National Institutes of Health’s Genetic and Rare Disease Information Center agrees.
While Tietze syndrome also involves pain and the inflammation of the cartilage joining the ribs to the sternum, it has the characteristic swelling. It can also documented with medical tests. Blood tests that measure the level’s of C-reactive protein can validate a diagnosis of Tietze syndrome, explains MedicineNet. According to Radeopedia, MRIs will also show physical changes in the affected area.
What do costochondritis and Tietze syndrome feel like?
Many people assume they’re having a heart attack. It honestly hurts that bad.
For me, I suddenly felt like I’d jumped into a too-small life ring and gotten it stuck just under my breasts. As my ribcage rebelled, everything squeezed, making movement awkward and breathing tough. If I got in the wrong position, I couldn’t breathe at all. My doctor explained that the inflammation in my costosternal joints had aggravated the other tissues in my ribcage, triggering muscle spasms that made everything feel worse. She prescribed anti-inflammatories and urged me to rest. But she couldn’t seem to tell me much more.
I understood why when I began scouring the internet for information on both Tietze syndrome and costochondritis. On major websites like Mayo Clinic, Web MD, and Medicine Net, I found brief articles that often had small contradictions. As I continued looking, I realized some sites used the terms interchangeably, yet others insisted they were distinct. Some described the conditions as self-limiting, while others mentioned the possibility of a chronic issue. Recovery periods ranged from a matter of weeks to a year. There wasn’t even a clear agreement on the cause for either condition.
What can you do to get better?
If you suspect that you have costochondritis or Tietze syndrome, don’t self-diagnose. Visit your doctor and make sure it isn’t something life-threatening. Once you’re diagnosed, work with your doctor to find medications and strategies to reduce inflammation and control pain so that your ribcage can heal.
Be prepared to avoid or limit activities that stress your chest, like virtually anything that requires pushing, pulling or lifting. Traveling may aggravate your ribs. So can sitting at a computer for any length of time, carrying a pocketbook or wearing an underwire bra.
Operating under the old adage that “knowledge is power,” I set out to learn as much as I could about these conditions. I also explored the blogs and chats of others diagnosed with costochondritis or Tietze syndrome. While I was cautious about believing what I read there — and flat out skeptical about several things — it was reassuring to know I wasn’t alone in dealing with this pain. I even pulled together a list of helpful websites that offer information, insight and tips for people living with Tietze syndrome or costochondritis.
It’s been several months, and my ribcage still has its moments, but my pain is generally a tenth of what it was during those first few weeks. I’m still hoping for a full recovery and wish the same for anyone struggling with the pain of costochondritis or Tietze syndrome.