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.

Ask a Doctor Online Now!

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.

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.

Popping, cracking, clicking of the breastbone and ribs

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.

Please note that any information or feedback on this website is not intended to replace a consultation with a health care professional and will not constitute a medical diagnosis. By using this website and the comment service you agree to abide by the comment terms and conditions as outlined on this page

Ask a Doctor Online Now!

  • Hi Missy. It is difficult to say for sure why you are experiencing this repetitive costochondritis. As you mentioned, past episodes were related to your occupation and bouts of coughing but there is very likely precipitating causes at the moment that you may not be noticing. For example, you may be repeatedly carrying/lifting heavy objects. However, given the duration and your current age it is also important to investigate other contributing factors, like rheumatoid arthritis for exaple. It would be advisable that you see and orthopedic specialist at this point.

  • Missy Richmond

    Thank you so much for answering. I’m going to start keeping a record to see if I can figure what is causing it. My dog may have something to do with it. She’s bad to pull me hard on her leash, plus I pick her up more as she gets older. She only weighs about 25lbs, but she’s hyper and can REALLY pull me. I have had to start using my white cane more due to my vision loss progressing. I use my right hand for that, so I had to switch her to my left hand several months ago. That’s coincidentally the side I mostly get the costo on. I wonder if that’s contributing. I’ve a dr appointment soon, so I’ll ask. Do you think any stretches will help? I had to have MRIs on my thoracic and lumbar spine about a year ago. They found the thoracic fine, but I have advanced arthritis in my lumbar spine, along with all the discs in the lumbar herniated. I’ve had several nerve injections that’ve helped tremendously with that. They were surprised at the advanced arthritis even at my age. Maybe that plays into it? Anyway, thank you so very much for your timely and thorough response!

  • Ashley

    Hi , sometimes I get this sharp stiff pain on my sternum i believe, the bone between my breasts. The only way to get the stiff sharp pain to go away is if I stretch/lean back poking my chest out to make it pop kind of like when you pop your knuckles, and it goes away. Is this arthritis? I don’t understand why I have to lean back and poke my chest of to pop the breast bone to get the sharp pain to go away..

  • Hi Ashley. Stretching as you describe may allow the bones in the joint to “click” back into place. Of course we cannot say for sure if this is the issue in your case. As you can see from the article above there are many possible cases for your condition. Costochondritis and Tietze syndrome would be two possible considerations at this point. These conditions are not arthritis although arthritis could also be a possible cause but in rare cases. The only way to know for sure is for your doctor to assess you and make a diagnosis.