Musculoskeletal problems of the chest wall in athletes

Sports Med. 2002;32(4):235-50. doi: 10.2165/00007256-200232040-00003.


Chest pain in the athlete has a wide differential diagnosis. Pain may originate from structures within the thorax, such as the heart, lungs or oesophagus. However, musculoskeletal causes of chest pain must be considered. The aim of this review is to help the clinician to diagnose chest wall pain in athletes by identifying the possible causes, as reported in the literature. Musculoskeletal problems of the chest wall can occur in the ribs, sternum, articulations or myofascial structures. The cause is usually evident in the case of direct trauma. Additionally, athletes' bodies may be subjected to sudden large indirect forces or overuse, and stress fractures of the ribs caused by sporting activity have been extensively reported. These have been associated with golf, rowing and baseball pitching in particular. Stress fractures of the sternum reported in wrestlers cause pain and tenderness of the sternum, as expected. Diagnosis is by bone scan and limitation of activity usually allows healing to occur. The slipping rib syndrome causes intermittent costal margin pain related to posture or movement, and may be diagnosed by the 'hooking manoeuvre', which reproduces pain and sometimes a click. If reassurance and postural advice fail, good results are possible with resection of the mobile rib. The painful xiphoid syndrome is a rare condition that causes pain and tenderness of the xiphoid and is self-limiting. Costochondritis is a self-limiting condition of unknown aetiology that typically presents with pain around the second to fifth costochondral joints. It can be differentiated from Tietze's syndrome in which there is swelling and pain of the articulation. Both conditions eventually settle spontaneously although a corticosteroid injection may be useful in particularly troublesome cases. The intercostal muscles may be injured causing tenderness between the ribs. Other conditions that should be considered include epidemic myalgia, precordial catch syndrome and referred pain from the thoracic spine.

Publication types

  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Adolescent
  • Adult
  • Aged
  • Athletic Injuries / diagnosis*
  • Athletic Injuries / therapy
  • Chest Pain / diagnosis*
  • Chest Pain / therapy
  • Child
  • Cumulative Trauma Disorders / diagnosis
  • Cumulative Trauma Disorders / therapy
  • Female
  • Fractures, Stress / diagnosis
  • Fractures, Stress / therapy
  • Humans
  • Male
  • Middle Aged
  • Musculoskeletal Diseases / diagnosis*
  • Musculoskeletal Diseases / therapy
  • Myofascial Pain Syndromes / diagnosis
  • Myofascial Pain Syndromes / therapy
  • Rib Fractures / diagnosis
  • Rib Fractures / therapy
  • Ribs / injuries
  • Ribs / physiopathology
  • Sternum / injuries
  • Thoracic Injuries / diagnosis*
  • Thoracic Injuries / therapy