Popping, Cracking, Clicking Sternum (Breastbone) Rib Joint

A popping or cracking noise emanating from the sternum (breastbone) is usually associated with the joints between the breastbone and ribs. These bones are connected to each other by a length of cartilage (costal cartilage) that extends from the rib and attaches to the sternum.

The cartilage of the first seven ribs articulate with the sternum at the sternocostal joints. These cartilages also articulate with the ribs at the costochondral joints. The clavicle also articulates with the sternum at the sternoclavicular joint although this is less likely to be associated with any audible clicking. The popping or cracking noise may be accompanied by breast bone pain, tenderness and/or joint swelling.

Popping, cracking, clicking of the breastbone and ribs

Why do the sternal or rib joints click?

The exact mechanism of popping or cracking of any joint is not known. It may be due to the ‘snapping’ of ligaments or tendons, gas bubbles released from the joint fluid (cavitation) or partial dislocation (sublaxation). At times a grating noise may be heard, like two rough surfaces scraping against each other. This may occur if there is erosion of the bone or joint lining which occurs as a consequence of certain types of arthritis that persist over a long period of time.

Popping joints are not usually considered to be a medical problem unless there is pain, swelling or limited mobility associated with the cracking or clicking. In these cases, inflammation of the joint is likely and the popping noise may settle, along with the pain and swelling, over time or with the use of anti-inflammatory drugs.

The popping may occur spontaneously but usually occurs with movement like when breathing deeply or stretching the arms wide. The popping may sometimes relieve the pain, if present. In some cases, stress may aggravate the popping sound and breast bone pain.

Causes of Popping, Cracking Sternum or Ribs

Some of the causes of the clicking of the sternum or rib may include :

  • Trauma. Injury to the chest area, example – assault, falls or car accident injuries where there is impact with the steering wheel.
  • Physical strain. This may be seen in excessive weight lifting (bench pressing) or other activities that put pressure on the chest wall, its muscles and bones. A person who supports their body weight on one hand or elbow over long periods may transfer the weight across the costal cartilage and thereby strain the joint possibly leading to inflammation or sublaxation.
  • Costochondritis is the inflammation of the costal cartilage and usually affects the fourth to sixth ribs. This may be caused by infections, postoperatively (like in cardiothoracic ‘open heart’ surgery) or after repeated minor trauma and/or physical strain. Pain and tenderness is usually present although swelling is not typically evident.
  • Tietze’s syndrome is similar to costochondritis but usually affects the second and third ribs and more commonly occurs in young girls. Apart from pain, there is also detectable swelling. It is usually caused by the repeated minor trauma or physical strain, including persistent coughing or repeated vomiting.
  • Muscle spasm may also cause sublaxation of the joint as the degree of flexibility is limited due to ‘tight’ muscles. This is usually accompanied by chest pain. Refer to the article on Muscle Chest Pain.
  • Osteoarthritis or rheumatoid arthritis. These types of arthritis do not commonly affect these joints or cause clicking but it may be possible in widespread cases of arthritis. Joint degeneration due to chronic arthritis could cause a grating sound.
  • Calcification of the costal cartilage.
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  • towing_trans

    My 8 yr daughter came to me and said mom feel this. she bent her chest over and straightned it and her ribs made a popping noise and you could feel it pop. I am not quite sure what this if anyone knows what it is please let me know. I plan on trying to call her doctor tomarrow. Thank you

  • Dr. Chris

    Hi Towing
    It may be Tietze’s syndrome which is more common in young girls. Anyway it is a good idea to take her through to the doctor and let him/her examine your doctor and make a final diagnosis.

  • mikaela

    I’ve been having this problem since about April this year. I don’t recall any injuries that could have started this but my chest gets really tight and I have shortness of breath until i try to breathe in deeply and the popping noise happens. After that I feel fine. I’ve tried telling my parents about it but they think I’m crazy and my doctor has no diagnosis. I had a chest x-ray just last week but everything showed up fine. What’s wrong?

  • Dr. Chris

    Hi Mikaela

    A bubbling sound during deep breathing may indicate inflammation of the air ways and mucus production or even fluid accumulation in the lung so it is important to differentiate between popping and bubbling. The chest cavity expands upon deep breathing and this popping noise may be related to the cartilages that join the ribs to the breastbone (costal cartilages) or the joints itself. This may not always show up on an x-ray. In young women, Tietze’s syndrome is one of the causes of this. Treatment is not always necessary and it may pass on its own but if the pain is severe or impairing your daily functioning then you may need to be on anti-inflammatory drugs or even corticosteroids. Your doctor will first have to diagnose this condition and then consider appropriate treatment options.

  • braxtonianman

    About a year ago, a friend “attack-hugged” me from behind. When she hugged me, she kinda tackled me at the same time, and her fists hit my sternum. After that, I was in intense pain for a few hours or so. Ever since then, I’ve had my sternum pop quite frequently. Whenever it does, it doesn’t just pop, but it feels like it’s ripping, in a way and is extremely painful. Sometimes it just hurts, and that’s the only way to temporarily relieve the pain. It’s gotten to the point of where it’s even uncomfortable to drive. Could that be a dislocation, and if so, is there anything I can do to at least minimize the symptoms?

  • Dr. Chris

    Hi Braxtonianman

    Yes, it could be dislocation during these periods but you have to exclude any fracture. This would be extremely painful at the time and may have healed inappropriately. You need to see a doctor and have a chest x-ray. The fact that your symptoms are persisting for such a long period after the incident means that there is some more serious cause. Conservative management may not offer much relief. There is no way of knowing what may be occurring without proper investigation.

  • colinadms

    For the past two years I have had pain on the left side of my chest either just inside my nipple or along the edge of my sternum. It can be … question posted on Swollen Lumps on Chest, Popping Sternal Pain.

  • michelle r

    My chest/sternum has been popping, like when you pop your knuckles, for about 2-3 weeks now. I am 19 and it has made my chest sore now. It pops when i spread my arms or twist and it provides a temporary relief but then it hurts more than before. I haven’t done any heavy lifting or anything so I have no idea what it could be or what I should do. Help?

  • viarmenta

    A couple years ago I was in a car accident and ever since i’ve had pain in my sternum. The only way this pain goes away is waiting for a popping noise which sometimes takes days. While i wait for the popping i feel pressure on my chest. Can this be corrected by surgery?

  • Dr. Chris

    Hi Michelle

    Costochondritis can arise for a number of reasons even if you have not been doing any weight lifting. Once these cartilages become inflamed and swollen, they may not articulate properly with the joints of the rib on one end and sternum at the other end. This is most often noticed when these joints are put under strain – breathing in deeply or stretching the arms or using the pectoral muscles. While injury and obvious physical strain may be the most common cause, other conditions like large breast and inappropriately fitting brassieres can also put strain on these joints.

    There could be a number of causes and this should be discuss with your doctor who will do the necessary investigations to come to a final diagnosis. Immobilizing the are by limiting movement of the arms and not breathing in deeply will not help if the condition has been persisting for so many weeks. You will need to see a doctor.

  • Dr. Chris

    Hi Viarmenta

    A lot depends on the condition itself, whether is related to inflamed costal cartilages, dysfunction with the joints, or even fractures of the breastbone or ribs. You will have to see a doctor who will conduct the necessary investigations and decide on the appropriate treatment. Without knowing the exact cause, it will be difficult to say whether surgery will correct this. From what you say, it appears to be costochondritis and surgery is usually not necessary. Anti-inflammatory drugs and a corticosteroid injection may provide some relief. Speak to your doctor.

  • Sarah

    My boyfriend was in a car crash about a year ago. His car was hit by a semi-truck, causing his steering wheel to crush him between it and his seat. He suffered several rib fractures. A year on from this accident he still gets pain in his ribs, especially at night, and quite often he wakes up expressing severe pain for a short while (a minute or so) before suppressing it himself. Although his breathing does not sound as bad as it did for the first few months after his accident anymore, in addition to the pain he can also crack his ribs. I tell him not to because I don’t think it’s good, but he does it a lot regardless. He is very stubborn and refuses to see a doctor (I’d have to drag him). The last doctor gave him a muscle-relaxant to help him, but he doesn’t use it. After doing some research into ribs, I worry that perhaps he has a flail chest or something similar. I don’t think it’s normal that he still suffers from pain a year after the accident. When he wakes up in pain I feel useless, I want to be able to do something to help him. Is there anything you think I could do?

  • Dr. Chris

    Hi Sarah

    At this point, it is unlikely that it is a flail chest. He needs to see a doctor though. There could have been fractures that have not healed properly and the costal cartilages may be inflamed thereby creating a problem when articulating with the rib or sternum. It could also be muscular in origin and this could have been confirmed if he experienced significant relief upon using the muscle relaxant. Your boyfriend should see an orthopedist at this point.If he is an adult and refuses to seek treatment then there is not much you can do. He should be more proactive given the severity of his symptoms. There is little you can do without knowing the exact cause. He needs to be aware that the condition may complicate further and cause significant problems in the long run if he does not seek treatment ASAP.

  • tanner123

    I am starting to get really frustrated. Every time i cough, or laugh, there is a notable and palpable snap or ‘pop’ at my eighth rib, I think. It’s on both sides, but more prevalent on my right. I also have bi-lateral Sterno-clavicular ‘popping’. The left one sounds like a grinding, the one on the right more of a pop, and doesn’t bother me too much. But my obliques and muscles in my diaphragm and abdominal area are really sore and tired. I should probably also say (sorry for all of this!),I also have a labral tear in my right hip. I have pain in my my entire left shoulder that’s gotten progressively worse and consumed my scapula with subluxation and AC. My main question is, can you have some sort of auto-immune disease without swelling of the digits and small bones of the hands, because I’m only 20, and over the past 4 years all I’ve been plagued by random and terrible joint issues in almost all joints, that cant be explained by environmental factors, like excessive weight lighting or trauma. Because for the most part my hands are good, but this abdominal popping is really starting to cause some discomfort.

    thank you,

  • Dr. Chris

    Hi Tanner

    Simply, the answer is yes. There are many conditions that can affect the joints and muscles without clearly evident signs like swelling. Before you get ahead of yourself though, speak to a doctor about it. He will do certain autoimmune tests like an ANF, RF and so on. These markers will not be evident in every single patient (sometimes up to 25% may test negative depending on the test) but it is worth having a full range of investigation. You may even find that the cause is not as serious as you may be thinking.

  • pianomaestro89

    I am a 21-year-old non-smoking, 145 pounds 5’9, fairly healthy female. In the past, I have had the occasional seasonal allergies, sinus infections, and bronchitis like any other normal person. The last time I had bronchitis, I coughed so much and so violently that I had severe pain in my right side, so much to where I had to sleep on that side (having pressure applied made the pain go away). When I sat up or stood up, it took great effort to do so, and for about a month I had to reinvent most of my movements. I never went to a doctor, because I figured it would go away as the bronchitis went away, and I figured that since I could still breathe, it probably wasn’t broken, but just strained. Luckily it did. Seeing that I am at a healthy weight, I can feel my ribs fairly well, and between them feeling symmetrical and looking symmetrical, I am not as concerned about my ribs anymore because the pain went away. However, right after my bout of bronchitis, I noticed that sometimes I get a tight feeling in my chest, like I am short of breath, and when I inhale deeply, a single pop sounds from the left side of my sternum right around the 3rd or 4th rib below my collarbone. Even more recently, I have noticed that if I move a certain way, it pops. Occasionally it aches, but the pain goes away if I can get it to pop. Could stress to the lower ribs (particularly the ones right around the bottom of the rib cage) cause problems with the sternum between the sternum and higher ribs, or is this popping coming from somewhere else?

  • Dr. Chris

    Hi Pianomaestro89

    Prolonged and persistent coughing often causes muscle strain – the intercostal muscles (between the ribs) and accessory respiratory muscles. It would account for the chest pain at the time. However, this should have eased now that the coughing stopped and would not result in the popping.

    Instead the costal cartilages, which connect the end of the ribs to the sternum, may be the problem. They may either be inflamed or the joints between the ribs and cartilage or cartilage and sternum may be the problem. This could account for the popping noise and can be quite painful. They may have been strained at the time time of the coughing although there is possibly some other contributing factor that was pre-existing and the bouts of coughing just pushed it a little further. It is unlikely the rib itself or you would be in severe pain, have noticed swelling and experience difficulty upon breathing.

  • tcherner

    Hi All,

    I played rugby last weekend and my rib popped out of joint. How should I go about recovering from this injury? My rib popping in and out, and it is painful to say the least.

    Todd

  • thaxboyd

    20 years ago I crashed skiing and hurt my ribs/sternum area. I never did go to the doctor for it, I just took it easy for a few weeks. Ever since then I experience a very strong pain in my sternum when I slouch or move in a certain way. If I bend backwards and pull my arms back it will pop and the pain will go away. It seems to be really bad for a few days where it goes out with the simplest things. Sometimes it doesn’t pop back and the pain stays. When this happens I am in a tremendous amount of pain and have a hard time doing anything. I have seen my doctor a couple times in the last few years and he seems to thing it is no big deal. He will give me pain meds and has once given me a steroid pack (regimen of steroids) for it. It only ever seems to fix the symptoms for a week or more. Can anything be done to fix this?

  • Dr. Chris

    Hi TCherner

    You need to have a chest x-ray immediately. Do not assume that it popped out. Isolating the exact cause is important. Immobilization, some strapping (done by a physical therapist), anti-inflammatory drugs or even a corticosteroid injection may all be necessary. Your doctor and physical therapist will advise you further.

  • Dr. Chris

    Hi Thaxboyd

    Without further investigation like an x-ray or CT scan, it will be difficult to say whether it can be treated. The concern at this point is that the original injury may have healed but not as it should have since you did not seek medical treatment at the time. This means that you could have some permanent defect as a result of the inappropriate healing response. These are just IF’s and you need to see an orthopedic surgeon (orthopedist) and undergo further investigation to identify the extent of the problem. A conclusive diagnosis is necessary in order to decide as to what your treatment options are. If no abnormality can be found, it is may just be isolated to joint laxity and inflammation. It will in that case never heal completely but occasional corticosteroid injections may help to reduce the severity of an episode.

  • venkatasu

    Dear doctor, I am tall thin built and thin chested. Having trivial MVPS. For the past 5 to 6 month I have pain in the sternal angle. Usually my second rib and point of sternal angle looks prominent to the naked eye like other ribs. I too hear popping sounds. I checked with the dr who said nothing to worry. He never commented on this. Pls throw light on the pain which is mostly felt while lying on the bed sidewards. While driving while leaning forward etc. I too have occasional chest pains which is no way connected with movements which dr diagnosed as GERD or due to MVPS. I want to know about that sternal angle pain and prominence.

  • Dr. Chris

    Venkatasu

    If there has been no history of trauma, nutrient deficiencies and so on, this prominence of the sternal angle may be normal and just more obvious since you are thin. It could also be related to inflammation of the joint in this area (swelling) and may also explain the pain and popping sound. You can read more about this under Costchondritis and Breastbone Pain. You should speak to an orthopedic specialist about this. In terms of the pain and given your history, it is possible that this is related to your mitral valve prolapse, and the condition may be progressing. Hopefully you are consulting with a cardiologist.

  • martybspace

    Bottom right 5 ribs were broken 20 years ago and healed fine. Bottom rib occasionally and painlessly pops or shifts. This can be felt with my hand easily.
    Have developed pain on right side where ribs end; and no indications of spleen,liver or pancreas trouble with blood tests and cat scan.
    Can this be a sort of “flail Chest syndrome”?

  • Dr. Chris

    Hi Martbspace

    Unlikely. Rather it seems related to the costochondral joint – this is the flexible area between the ribs and breast bone occupied by costal cartilages. You should see a doctor just to verify this.

  • BobbyV

    Hello Dr. Chris,

    My chest does this popping/cracking sound and its always confused me as to the cause. I don’t recall having any stress placed on my ribs or sternum that would cause this inflammation. I’ve had this issue for a little over a year and the last 4-5 months its gotten more and more addictive. The pressure builds up so much I just want to pop it and no matter which way I try it wont pop, it usually happens randomly during a stretch or if I turn quickly. It also only happens on the left side of my sternum ( when I turn and stretch to my right).My question is how long does this normally last? If I begin taking anti-inflammatory medicine will it subside or be gone forever? I feel the pressure building and building every day and when it pops it feels better and better, just dont know how long this will be the case.

  • harish

    Hello Doctor,
    I am hearing a popping or bubbling sound from sternum(breast bone) joint in middle of my chest. I am able to reproduce this sound if i can put by chest in a particular position and if i twist my body to a little right. I am feeling a little pain, but sometimes i am also feel burning there.
    I am thin and tall, having no health problems, am vegetarian and have no bad habits(smoke, drink).
    Please tell me whether this is a serious issue or because of being thin.

  • Dr. Chris

    Hi BobbyV

    There is no way of telling you how long it will last or if anti-inflammatories will help without knowing the exact diagnosis. You need to see a doctor who can examine you and possibly run other investigations like an x-ray. Your doctor will then be able to advise you on the best course of treatment and prognosis. From what you describe, it seems quite likely that this is costochondritis. In severe cases, you may even need corticosteroids or steroid injections. You can read more about this condition in this article on What is Costochondritis?. Treatment is discussed under Severe Costochondritis. Of course you have to see a doctor who will then diagnose you.

  • Dr. Chris

    Hi Harish

    There is no way of telling you if this is a serious condition just based on the symptoms you report. You may be missing other key clinical features which is why you have to speak to a doctor who will also consider further investigations. This sounds like costochondritis and you can read more in this article : What is costochondritis? You do however need to see a doctor to exclude other serious conditions.

  • xtremx

    I am 39 year old male 203pounds, have been having chest pains for over a year now but the doctor has put this down to costochondritis and gerd have had a few ecgs and a stress-test also an x-ray of the neck (cervical rib)but all cameback fine have aslo had the normal bloods done and that showed a very slightly high esr level (as was having splinter hemorages on finger nails but they have cleared up now) but that has gone down to normal now,but over the last few months or so have have noticed large visable veins leading from my shoulder to my breast/heart area left side they are not bulging just very visable,also seem to have discomfet in my left shoulder/arm and sometimes pins/needles in my little finger/ring finger could this be heart related as my doctor has just said not to worry.also my blood pressure does vary a bit sometimes upto 140/90 but the doc tells me that is fine, Aswell as that my chest/sterum has started to crack sometimes when i move or i have to crack it myself by moving from side to side (but sometimes that does not help and it seems as if my chest/sterum locks up for a while and i cannot move.
    + also seen to get stressed easy and sometimes my chest begins to ache then.

  • Dr. Chris

    Xtremx,

    Your question has been answered on Health Hype Answers. Click here to read more on Chest Pain, GERD, Sternum Pain

  • Ramon Bonilla

    Ok im a 24 yr old male about 6’0 135 and right in the middle of my cheast it feels like its sinks in and dont feel right until i streach my arms to the back and it pops can you tell me whats wrong?

  • Dr. Chris

    Hi Ramon Bonilla

    You may be describing pectus excavatum which is a chest wall deformity also known as funnel chest. This is present from childhood and presents with pain and so on. Not much can be done except for surgery and so on. However, if it has arisen more recently, then it could be conditions like costochondritis and if it is ongoing, you may be doing something that is putting pressure on the costochondral joints. This can be treated and depending on the severity, it may require anti-inflammatory drugs or even corticosteroid injections. See your doctor as soon as possible.

  • zhyke

    can you help me about cracking sound on my chest and every 20 -30 minutes to crack again . when im looking on mirror it seems some deformity on my chest . can you helop me about this ??

    thanks

  • Dr. Chris

    Hi Zhyke

    You have to see a doctor about this who can assess you, conduct further investigation and reach a diagnosis. There are various deformities of the chest wall so it is difficult to understand what you may mean with so little information – it could be a deformity tin the entire shape of the chest or abnormalities noted on teh chest wall itself. This popping may be a symptom of costochondritis where the costal cartilages (between the rib and breastbone) are inflamed and the popping causes by the disrupted joint movement. Your doctor will be able to advise you further.

  • Tyler l

    Hi dr.Chris,

    I am an athletic 20 year old male. Back in march I was diagnosed with functional dyspepsia due to stress, and had severe heart burn and was on losec for two months. At the same time I herniated a disc in my lower back from a Sudden twisting motion. I could not exercise or even walk very much for 2 months. This caused some deconditioning. Whenever possible, I would use my arms to support myself and take the weight off my back.

    In June I had bent backwards to stretch my abdominal muscles after sitting at the pc for several hours in a forward posture and using my elbows to support my weight to relieve my back, and suddenly I popped my sternum. It was very loud and pain shot down from the center of my sternum from my collarbone down to my lower ribs, Immediately i could not bend down even to tie my shoes. After 1 week of sternum pain and shortness of breath, the symptoms disappeared and I carelessly reinjured it trying to pull open heavy doors, this caused another week of shortness of breath like my lungs cannot expand. Two weeks after, symptoms disappeared and I had hurt it yet again doing some heavy lifting. I’ve reinjured it 5 times by my count, the last time in July and took 3 months for the intense stabbing gnawing pain to subside to the point where I have enough lung capacity to carry a casual conversation and for me to be able to touch my sternum lightly without agony. It’s now been 6 months since the initial injury and 5 since the most recent injury.

    I still have difficulty breathing, expanding my chest fully to yawn, speaking for extended periods of time or going on a long slow walk causes shortness of breath. Sneezing causes a cracking or popping sound in my chest, I have to hold my chest with one hand to sneeze. Raising my arms to wash my hair and brush my teeth causes discomfort or if for a long time, also causes shortness of breath. My ribs are always sore to the touch and ache but only if I press to examine. If I press on my sternum I will be short of breath and in pain, although not as severe. I also had back, neck and shoulder and shoulder blade pain after the 5th time I had reinjured it back in July. I could not Even turn in bed And i had to lie down very carefully because of the sternum pain, lyjng down too fast would cause a surge of pain back in august.These symptoms have subsided.

    I did 2 weeks of Tylenol extra in July, after the 5th reinjury, I also rested and did not use my arms other than absolutely necessary.

    Question: after repeated chest X-rays, multiple MRI’s from my lumbar to upper thoracic spine, a ct scan of my lungs, blood and urine tests, and even a brain MRI for some reason, every doctor has assured me that I am fine and in no life threatening danger and should take more Tylenol, but left it at that without a solid diagnosis…. I become short of breath when sitting at a computer for 20 minutes or more, or when reading, I have adopted a forward posture (hunch back) to protect my chest because standing erect with my chest forward hurts, and every morning I wake up with ribs and collar bone pain which goes away in time. WHAT exactly do I have, even if it isn’t life threatening, and how do I treat it??? I have missed half a year of school, what can I do to become functional again??? Will the shortness of breath from conversation or activity completely improve in time or is this as good as it can get? There are improvements in my condition, but how do I know if my condition becomes chronic and I’ll not be able to get back to weight training, or if it is still acute but taking a long time to completely heal? I have lost 30 pounds in muscle from adapting a very careful lifestyle and resting as much as possible for the past 8 months including from the sciatica which has completely gone away. Can I go back to school in January?