Medical News Today: How do I stop stress eating?

Emotional eating is a pattern of eating where people use food to help them deal with stressful situations.

Many people experience emotional eating at one time or another. It could show itself as eating a bag of chips when bored or eating a chocolate bar after a difficult day at work.

However, when emotional eating happens frequently or becomes the main way a person deals with their emotions, then their life, health, happiness, and weight can be negatively affected.

Triggers to avoid

Businessman at his desk emotional eating
Common triggers for emotional eating may include fatigue, habits, boredom, and stress.

Emotions, such as stress, are not the only triggers for emotional eating. Other common triggers that people report include:

  • Boredom: Being bored or having nothing to do is a common emotional eating trigger. Many people live very stimulating and active lives, and when they have nothing to do will turn to food to fill that vacuum.
  • Habits: These are often driven by nostalgia or things that happened in a person’s childhood. An example might be, having ice cream after a good report card or baking cookies with a grandparent.
  • Fatigue: It is easier to overeat or eat mindlessly when fatigued, especially when tired of doing an unpleasant task. Food can seem like the answer to not wanting to do a particular activity anymore.
  • Social influences: Everyone has that friend who encourages them to get a pizza after a night out, go out for dinner or drinks after a difficult day, or as a reward for a good day. It can be easy to overeat when with friends or family.

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Coping strategies

The first step a person needs to take to rid themselves of emotional eating is to recognize the triggers and situations that apply in their life.

Keeping a food diary or journal can help to identify situations when someone is more likely to eat because of emotional instead of physical hunger.

Tracking their behavior is another way someone can gain insight into their eating habits.

The behavior they record can include:

  • patterns of hunger levels, maybe on a 1–10 scale
  • what they are doing and if it is tedious and unpleasant
  • what they are feeling, whether bored or angry,

Next, they may want to brainstorm ideas for ways to counteract the triggers they identify. For example:

  • Someone who eats when bored may want to find a new book that sounds exciting to start reading, or start a new hobby that could provide a challenge.
  • Someone who eats because of stress could try yoga, meditating, or taking a walk to help themselves cope with their emotions.
  • Someone who eats when they are depressed may want to call a friend, take the dog for a run, or plan an outing to cope with their negative feelings.

It can also be helpful to talk to a therapist or psychologist to discuss other ways to break the cycle of emotional eating.

A nutritionist or doctor may also be able to provide a referral to an expert or additional information on creating positive eating habits and a better relationship with food.

Emotional eating is not simply a matter of a person lacking self-discipline or needing to eat less. Likewise, people who eat to deal with stress do not just lack self-control.

The causes are complex and may involve some of the following:

Childhood development

Child in a kitchen eyeing up cookies
Emotional eating may be a learned behavior from childhood that could be difficult to break.

For some people, emotional eating is a learned behavior. During childhood, their parents give them treats to help them deal with a tough day or situation, or as a reward for something good.

Over time, the child who reaches for a cookie after getting a bad grade on a test may become an adult who grabs a box of cookies after a rough day at work.

In an example such as this, the roots of emotional eating are deep, which can make breaking the habit extremely challenging.

Difficulty dealing with emotions

It is common for people to also struggle with difficult or uncomfortable feelings and emotions. There is an instinct or need to quickly fix or destroy these negative feelings, which can lead to unhealthy behaviors.

And emotional eating is not only linked to negative emotions. Eating a lot of candy at a fun Halloween party, or too much on Thanksgiving are examples of eating because of the holiday occasion itself.

Physical impact of stress

There are also some physical reasons why stress and strong emotions can cause a person to overeat:

  • High cortisol levels: Initially, stress causes the appetite to decrease so that the body can deal with the situation. If the stress does not let up, another hormone called cortisol is released. Cortisol increases appetite and can cause someone to overeat.
  • Cravings: High cortisol levels from stress can increase food cravings for sugary or fatty foods. Stress is also associated with increased hunger hormones, which may also contribute to cravings for unhealthy foods.
  • Sex: Some research shows that women are more likely to use food to deal with stress than men are, while men are more likely than women to smoke or use alcohol.

Physical vs. emotional hunger

It is very easy to mistake emotional hunger for physical hunger. But there are characteristics that distinguish them.

Recognizing these subtle differences is the first step towards helping to stop emotional eating patterns.

Does the hunger come on quickly or gradually?

Emotional hunger tends to hit quickly and suddenly and feels urgent. Physical hunger is usually not as urgent or sudden unless it has been a while since a person ate.

Is a food craving for a specific food?

Emotional hunger is usually associated with cravings for junk food or something unhealthy. Someone who is physically hungry will often eat anything, while someone who is emotionally hungry will want something specific, such as fries or a pizza.

Is there such a thing as mindless eating?

Mindless eating is when someone eats without paying attention to or enjoying what they are consuming.

An example is eating an entire container of ice cream while watching television, having not intended to eat that much. This behavior usually happens with emotional eating, not eating through hunger.

Does the hunger come from the stomach or the head?

Emotional hunger does not originate from the stomach, such as with a rumbling or growling stomach. Emotional hunger tends to start when a person thinks about a craving or wants something specific to eat.

Are there feelings of regret or guilt after emotional eating?

Giving in to a craving, or eating because of stress can cause feelings of regret, shame, or guilt. These responses tend to be associated with emotional hunger.

On the other hand, satisfying a physical hunger is giving the body the nutrients or calories it needs to function and is not associated with negative feelings.

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Emotional eating is a common experience and is not usually associated with physical hunger. Some people succumb to it occasionally while others can find it impacts on their lives and may even threaten their health and mental wellbeing.

Anyone who experiences negative emotions around their eating habits should arrange a visit to their doctor to discuss their issues. They may also want to consult a registered nutritionist or another therapist to help them find solutions or coping mechanisms.

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Medical News Today: How to treat an infected hangnail

A hangnail is a small piece of jagged or torn skin that appears at the very edge of the fingernail. Hangnail infections are common and highly treatable.

In this article, we look at home remedies, how a doctor can drain an abscess, how to prevent infection, and possible complications.

Is the hangnail infected?

Man inspecting infected hangnail, with grooming and manicure equipment sand products on table in front of him.
Redness, swelling, and pain are potential symptoms of an infected hangnail.

Infection occurs when bacteria or fungus get under the skin. An infection between the nail and the skin is called paronychia.

Hangnails commonly occur on the fingernails and are sometimes also found on the toenails.

The following symptoms suggest a hangnail is infected:

  • redness
  • swelling
  • pain
  • a warm feeling
  • some bleeding
  • a pus-filled abscess at the nail edge

Bacterial infections can produce symptoms almost immediately, while fungal infections may take longer to appear.

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A hangnail can be treated at home using the following steps:

  • Warm water soak. Soak the nail in warm water for 15 minutes up to 4 times a day. This increases blood flow and cleanses the area.
  • Trim the hangnail. When the hangnail is soft from soaking, trim the edges to prevent it from catching on anything, and to reduce the risk of further infection.
  • Moisturize. Moisturize the affected area to stop it from drying out. This can prevent more hangnails from developing.
  • Medicinal creams. Applying small amounts of antibiotic or antifungal cream, depending on the cause of the infection, can speed up recovery. A doctor may also recommend topical steroids.

If the hangnail develops an abscess or starts producing pus, it may need to be drained to stop the infection from spreading. This procedure should be done by a medical professional.

To drain an infected hangnail, a doctor will:

  • Numb the area.
  • Lift the nail fold with an instrument to allow the pus to drain away. A surgical incision is rarely necessary.
  • Wash the area thoroughly.
  • Place a gauze strip into the abscess. This stays in the wound for 24-48 hours to help the area drain.
  • Prescribe an oral antibiotic.

The dressing and gauze should be removed within a couple of days. A person should then soak their nail in warm water up to 4 times a day.

People can also use the RICE method to reduce pain and swelling. The acronym RICE stands for rest, ice, compression, and elevation. Taking over-the-counter painkillers and anti-inflammatories can also help.

Complications and when to see a doctor

Doctor reassuring female patient.
A hangnail infection may resolve by itself, although an infection that lasts over 6 weeks will need to be assessed by a doctor.

In most cases, infected hangnails are temporary, mild, and can be treated at home.

If the hangnail develops an abscess or starts producing pus, it may need to be drained by a doctor. Avoid doing this at home, as improper drainage can lead to further complications.

A medical professional can usually diagnose an infected hangnail by sight. They may also send a sample off to a laboratory to determine the type of infection.

An infection lasting for longer than 6 weeks may be a chronic condition. A doctor can advise on the best course of treatment for this condition.

Rarely, the infection can spread to the hand or foot. This can be very serious, resulting in a loss of sensation or mobility, and can put the extremity at risk of amputation. Infections are more likely to spread in people with diabetes or other circulation disorders.

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Hangnails occur when the skin around the nail becomes irritated or damaged. Infection occurs when bacteria or fungus get into the wound.

A person is more likely to develop an infection if their hands or feet are frequently in moist conditions. For example, people who work as bakers and dishwashers are more likely to experience this condition.

A hangnail may be caused by:

  • dry skin
  • nail-biting
  • frequent sucking of a finger
  • clipping the nails too short
  • clipping the cuticles, the soft skin at the base of the nails
  • using artificial nails that contain glue or chemicals
  • having the hands in water frequently,
  • certain health conditions, such as diabetes

Infections around the nail can also be caused by ingrown fingernails or toenails, which occur when the edge of the nail starts to grow into the soft tissue surrounding it.


Person moisturizing with hand cream in lotion pot.
Moisturizing the skin on the hands regularly may help to prevent hangnail infections.

To prevent a hangnail from becoming infected:

  • avoid peeling it, as further injury makes infection more likely
  • trim the hangnail down with nail clippers
  • keep the fingernails clean
  • moisturize regularly
  • avoid biting the nails
  • make sure the hands do not stay wet for too long
  • wear rubber gloves when washing up or keeping the hands underwater

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Hangnail infections are common and will often heal without complication.

Home remedies, such as warm water soaks and antibiotics, can be effective for most mild infections. More serious infections involving pus or abscesses may require medical attention.

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Medical News Today: The 10 things you should know about your vagina

Though half of the world’s population has a vagina, there’s likely a lot you don’t know about this essential piece of reproductive machinery. Well, prepare to learn, as we take you through 10 surprising facts about your lady parts.
a woman holding a heart
Half of the population has a vagina, but there’s a lot we don’t know about it.

If simply hearing the word “vagina” makes you cringe with embarrassment, you’re not alone.

In fact, a 2016 survey discovered that a huge 65 percent of young women have problems saying “vagina,” with many preferring to use other terms, such as “women’s bits.”

Whatever you call it, there is one thing that we can all agree on: the vagina is vital for human reproduction and plays a major role in sexual satisfaction.

But there is so much more to the vagina than many of us realize. For example, did you know that that the word “vagina” derives from the latin word for “sheath” or “scabbard”?

Here, we take a look at 10 more things that you probably didn’t know about your “vajayjay” (yes, I hate that word, too).

1. The ‘vagina’ probably isn’t what you think

This is one fact that we need to get out of the way. When you talk about the vagina, you might think you’re referring to a woman’s collective private parts — but you’d be wrong.

Instead, the word vagina actually refers to a specific part of the female reproductive system. It is the muscular tube that runs from the vulva — which refers to the external female genitalia, including the labia and clitoris — to the cervix.

If you were wondering about size, research has found that vaginal depth can range from 2.7 to 3.1 inches. During sexual arousal, it is estimated that its depth can range from 4.3 to 4.7 inches.

2. You can’t lose a tampon in there

You may have heard some horror stories, but you’ll be relieved to know that it is impossible to get a tampon lost in your vagina; the opening at the top of your vagina is simply too small for it to escape through.

It is possible, however, to get a tampon stuck. If this is the case, you should see your doctor to get it removed. Leaving it in there for too long can increase the risk of toxic shock syndrome.

3. Your vagina may benefit from a workout

We don’t mean a “workout” in the sexual sense — although research has shown that regular sexual activity can help to keep your vagina healthy.

No, we’re talking about pelvic floor exercises, which are otherwise known as kegel exercises. They are normally done to help manage urinary incontinence, but research has shown that they can also help to improve sexual satisfaction.

How? Well, kegel exercises help to tighten the vagina, making sex more pleasurable and more likely to lead to orgasm.

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4. Your vagina is like wine

That’s right. The normal pH of the vagina is less than 4.5, which is similar to the pH of wine.

Lactobacilli are the “good” bacteria that dominate the vagina; they help to keep pH levels normal in our lady parts and prevent the growth of infection-causing bacteria.

When levels of lactobacilli fall, vaginal pH levels can rise above 4.5, which is ideal breeding ground for vaginal infections, such as yeast infections and bacterial vaginosis.

5. Don’t get carried away with cleaning

And that is exactly why we should avoid using scented soaps and other perfumed products to clean our vaginas.

Using such products interferes with the natural balance of vaginal bacteria, which may give rise to the aforementioned infections. In actual fact, we don’t really need to be overconcerned with our vaginal cleanliness at all; it takes care of itself.

There are glands in the vagina that secrete fluid, or “discharge,” and this helps to keep it clean.

“I see women of all ages with irritation, soreness, and itching,” said gynecologist and obstetrician Dr. Sangeeta Agnihotri to The Telegraph, “because there is a tendency for women to be overzealous with their cleanliness. This causes discomfort.”

“Our vaginas are sensitive areas. I would recommend washing once a day with water,” she added.

6. What you eat affects its scent

But if you’re worried that scrapping the soap might leave you smelling less than fresh down there, you might be interested to find that any unwelcome odors could be down to your diet.

onions and garlic
Strong-smelling foods, such as onions and garlic, can leave you smelling less than fresh down there.

When it comes to the scent of your lady parts, there is some anecdotal evidence that we are what we eat.

For example, there is a widespread belief that consuming pineapple can give your vagina a sweeter scent. Other foods believed to alter vaginal odor include garlic, onion, and fish, as well as cheese and chillies.

A word of caution, however: if you notice that your lady parts smell particularly pungent or their scent has changed dramatically, it could be a sign of infection, so it’s worth getting it checked out.

7. Your clitoris has thousands of nerves

While the clitoris is not a part of the vagina, we simply couldn’t pass up the chance to talk about this amazing piece of female genitalia.

The clitoris is considered by many women as the crux of sexual pleasure, and it’s no wonder; the tip of the clitoris alone has a whopping 8,000 nerve endings — more than double the number of nerve endings in the penis — making it the most sensitive part of a woman’s erogenous zone.

And if that wasn’t enough, research has shown that the clitoris can increase in size by up to 300 percent during sexual arousal.

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8. Your vagina doesn’t ‘fart’

All women have experienced it at one point or another: that embarrassing yet uncontrollable emission of air from the vagina, which is commonly known as “queefing.”

Yes, queefing sounds a lot like farting, but sounds can be deceiving. Those little puffs of air that emerge from our lady parts are simply that — trapped air that is being released from the vaginal canal.

They are not “farts” in the traditional sense because they are not waste gases, nor do they emit an unpleasant odor.

That said, in some rare cases, vaginal flatulence may be caused by a vaginal fistula, which is an abnormal opening from the vagina to the bladder, colon, or rectum.

9. The link between vaginas and sharks

While you wouldn’t normally compare your vagina to Jaws (and before you ask, no, vagina dentata is not a real condition), your lady parts have more in common with sharks than you realize.

The lubricant produced by the vagina contains a compound called squalene, which is the same compound that is found in the livers of sharks.

Controversially, squalene is also used in many cosmetic products, such as moisturizing lotions, sunscreens, and hair products.

10. It’s not all about the G-spot

We’ve all heard of the G-spot — an erogenous zone of the vagina that, when stimulated, may lead to sexual arousal and orgasm.

But have you heard of the A-spot? Also known as the anterior fornix erogenous zone, the A-spot is believed to be located deep inside the vagina, between the cervix and the bladder.

The A-spot is a relatively new discovery by Malaysian researcher Dr. Chua Chee Ann. In a study, he reported that 10–15 minutes of A-spot stimulation led to instant orgasms and vaginal lubrication in 15 percent of women who reported pain and dryness during sexual intercourse.

And since we’re on the subject of sex, you might want to take a look at an article that debunks five of the most common sex myths.

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Medical News Today: Have scientists found an anti-cancer vaccine?

Researchers from Stanford University used stem cells to create a vaccine that has proven effective against breast, lung, and skin cancer in mice.
doctor preparing vaccine shot
Humans may soon benefit from an anti-cancer shot, researchers say.

To produce the vaccine, the scientists turned to induced pluripotent stem cells (iPSCs), or stem cells that are generated from adult cells.

Over a decade ago, Japanese-based scientists showed for the first time that adult cells can be genetically reprogrammed to behave in the same way as pluripotent stem cells.

These cells can take any shape or function, “specializing” into whatever type of cell the body needs.

Embryonic stem cells are probably the most well-known type of pluripotent stem cell. As Wu and colleagues write, about a century ago, scientists found that immunizing animals with embryonic tissue caused them to reject tumors.

Over time, this led scientists to believe that embryonic stem cells could be used as a sort of vaccine against cancer tumors. The main challenge of anti-cancer vaccines, however, is the limited number of antigens — or foreign agents that elicit an immune response — that the immune system can be exposed to at once.

But, as Wu and his colleagues write, using iPSCs generated from the patient’s own genetic material has — in theory — a range of immunogenic advantages. They present immune T cells with a “more accurate and representative panel of [a] patient’s tumor immunogens.”

So, the researchers — led by Joseph C. Wu, of the Institute for Stem Cell Biology and Regenerative Medicine at Stanford University in California — set out to test this hypothesis in mice, and they published their results in the journal Cell Stem Cell.

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Immune system ‘primed’ to reject tumors

Wu and colleagues used the mice’s own cells to create the iPSCs, which they later vaccinated the rodents with. The vaccine targeted several tumor antigens at the same time.

As the researchers explain, the main advantage of using whole iPSCs is that the vaccine no longer has to identify the perfect antigen to target in a specific kind of cancer.

“We present the immune system with a larger number of tumor antigens found in iPSCs,” explains Wu, “which makes our approach less susceptible to immune evasion by cancer cells.”

In fact, the researchers discovered that many of the antigens found on the iPSCs could also be found in cancer cells.

So, when the rodents received the iPSCs shot, their immune system reacted to the iPSCs antigens. But, because the antigens in the iPSCs were so similar to the ones in the cancer cells, the rodents also became immune to cancer.

The vaccine almost “primed” the rodents’ immune systems “to eradicate tumor cells,” Wu explains.

Of the 75 treated mice, 70 percent completely rejected breast cancer cells, and 30 percent had smaller tumors within 4 weeks of getting the vaccine. And, the same thing happened in lung and skin cancer models.

What surprised us most was the effectiveness of the iPSC vaccine in reactivating the immune system to target cancer […] This approach may have clinical potential to prevent tumor recurrence or target distant metastases.”

Joseph C. Wu

In the future, a person who has been diagnosed with cancer might be able to use their own blood or skin cells to form iPSCs, which could prevent tumor recurrence. Likewise, healthy individuals may soon be able to use their own cells to prevent cancer altogether.

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Medical News Today: Running may protect your memory from stress

Research has shown, time and time again, that stress can affect both our physical and mental health. One of the processes that is significantly affected by chronic stress is memory, but there may be an easy way to help our brain to fight this damage.
photo of runners
A new study suggests that running could safeguard memory in times of stress.

The hippocampus is the region of our brains that is largely responsible for processes of learning and memory.

Normally, memories are formed and stored when new synapses — or the connections between neurons — are established and gradually strengthened over time.

This process is called long-term potentiation (LTP).

However, when we experience chronic stress, research has shown that those synapses are weakened — which means that our memory is also affected.

Recently, researchers from Brigham Young University in Provo, UT, have studied the effects of exercise on memory under conditions of stress. Their study, which was conducted on male mice, revealed that some forms of exercise — running, especially — could have a protective effect on the brain, thereby decreasing the impact of chronic stress on memory.

Running and other types of exercise have already been shown to help people manage or prevent depression, keep the brain healthy for longer, and alter our “cocktail” of gut bacteria, as we have reported on Medical News Today.

Now, Jeff Edwards and colleagues have linked running with maintaining memory health under stressful conditions. They argue — in a paper that is published in the journal Neurobiology of Learning and Memory — that this knowledge may enable us to protect our brain health by embarking on nothing more demanding than a refreshing jog.

“Exercise is a simple and cost-effective way to eliminate the negative impacts on memory of chronic stress,” notes Edwards.

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Study reveals ‘empowering’ findings

The scientists worked with adult male mice, which they split into two groups: active and sedentary. Mice in the active group were provided with running wheels for a period of 4 weeks, during which time they ran an average of 5 kilometers (roughly 3 miles) per day.

After this initial period, half of the mice in each group were exposed to high levels of stress caused by unfriendly conditions over 3 days: on the first day, they swam in cold water; on the second, they walked on an elevated platform; and on the third, they were exposed to short electric shocks.

Within an hour of the animals having undergone these stressful conditions, the LTP of each mouse was then evaluated for changes.

The researchers found that the animals that had been running regularly had much better LTP than the sedentary mice exposed to stress.

In additional experiments, Edwards and colleagues compared the performance of stressed mice that exercised with that of the active but non-stressed mice in a maze-running context.

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What they noticed was that the two groups of animals did just as well, suggesting that running had helped to protect the memory of the stressed mice.

Moreover, the mice that had been accustomed to running performed better in the maze memory-testing experiments than the sedentary mice.

All these findings put together suggest that exercise — and running, in particular — could be an effective way to protect memory under conditions of chronic stress.

“The ideal situation,” says Edwards, “for improving learning and memory would be to experience no stress and to exercise. Of course, we can’t always control stress in our lives, but we can control how much we exercise.”

It’s empowering to know that we can combat the negative impacts of stress on our brains just by getting out and running.”

Jeff Edwards

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Medical News Today: What is an intercostal muscle strain?

Intercostal muscle strain is an injury affecting the muscles between two or more ribs.

The intercostal muscles have different layers that are attached to the ribs to help build the chest wall and assist in breathing. When an intercostal muscle gets twisted, strained, or stretched too far, it can tear, causing intercostal muscle strain.

In this article, we examine the signs of an intercostal muscle strain, and how to tell one apart from other upper body pains and injuries. We also look at the causes and treatment options for these strains.

Signs and symptoms

Man holding his upper back in pain and has intercostal muscle strain
Symptoms of intercostal muscle strain may include sharp upper back pain, tension in muscles, muscle spasms, and severe and sudden pain.

The signs and symptoms of an intercostal muscle strain can differ slightly, depending on their cause. Symptoms may include:

  • sharp upper back and rib pain
  • severe and sudden pain, particularly if caused by a blow to the chest or back
  • gradual worsening pain after repetitive movement, such as rowing, swimming, or other physical exercises
  • stiffness and tension in muscles, causing upper back pain
  • muscle rigidity when bending or twisting the upper body
  • worsening pain when coughing, sneezing, or breathing in deeply
  • spasms of the intercostal muscles
  • tenderness in the area between the ribs

Intercostal muscle strain vs. other upper body pains

The upper back is rarely injured because it is relatively immobile. If this area is the cause of pain, it is often due to long-term poor posture. It can also be due to a severe injury that has weakened the sturdiness of the upper spine, such as a car accident.

Pain due to upper back injuries is usually felt as a sharp, burning pain in one spot. The pain can spread to the shoulder, neck, or elsewhere in the upper body, and it may come and go.

Intercostal muscle strain is almost always the result of some event, such as overexertion or injury. In contrast, the initial source of pain from pneumonia or other lung disorders is difficult to pinpoint.

If the specific area of discomfort can be located, such as between the ribs, this indicates the pain is not coming from the lungs or the upper back. Lung pain is usually described as sharp and spreading outward.

When a rib is fractured, the pain is usually much more severe than that of intercostal muscle strain.

The following symptoms may signal a rib fracture:

  • feeling breathless
  • a protrusion or a sharp stabbing sensation in the rib area
  • an area around the ribs that is extremely tender to touch

A fractured rib is a medical emergency requiring immediate attention.

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Common causes

sports injury to the ribs may cause intercostal muscle strain
A direct blow to the ribcage may cause intercostal muscle strain.

Routine activities are not usually the cause of intercostal muscle strain. These strains most often occur as the result of an injury or overexertion of the muscles.

Common causes include:

  • a direct blow to the rib cage, such as from a fall or car accident
  • an impact blow from contact sports, such as hockey or football
  • twisting the torso beyond its normal range of motion
  • twisting while lifting weights
  • forceful twisting, such as from golf or tennis
  • twisting from specific yoga postures or dance positions
  • reaching overhead, for example, when painting a ceiling
  • lifting any heavy object above shoulder height
  • prolonged overhead reaching
  • repetitive forceful movements, such as hitting a tennis ball

A sudden increase in physical activity can also lead to an intercostal muscle strain. This is the case particularly when muscles are weakened by a lack of exercise or poor posture.

When to see a doctor

The time to see the doctor depends on the severity of the injury. A mild injury may result in a low level of pain and stiffness that goes away within a few days.

It is advisable to see a doctor if the pain is severe, lasts for more than a few days, or interferes with sleep or daily activities.

If a traumatic injury, such as a fall or an automobile accident, has occurred, or breathing is difficult, immediate medical attention is needed.

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Diagnosing intercostal muscle strain involves a physical exam. The aim is to check for any limitations of movement and assess areas that are tender. The doctor will also ask about any recent injuries or sports involvement.

An X-ray or MRI scan may be ordered if the doctor rules out internal injuries, such as a fractured rib.


Foam roller exercise to help with intercostal muscle strain
Physical therapy treatment, such as foam roller stretches, may be recommended for intercostal muscle strain.

Home treatment may be all that is required if the injury that causes an intercostal muscle strain is not severe and symptoms are mild. Home treatment options include the following:

  • Applying an ice pack or cold pack, followed by heat therapy. Heat therapy options include a warm bath, heating pads, or adhesive heat wraps, which are available to buy online.
  • Resting and limiting all physical activity for a few days to allow time for the muscle strain to recover.
  • Taking over-the-counter pain medications, such as acetaminophen or ibuprofen, to reduce swelling and pain.
  • Splinting the area if breathing is painful by holding a pillow against the injured muscle. However, difficulty breathing means medical attention must be obtained right away.

In addition to the home remedies described above, the doctor may order the following:

  • muscle relaxants for severe pain and spasms
  • physical therapy (PT)
  • injection of lidocaine and corticosteroids to reduce pain and swelling if other treatments fail

Physical therapy

PT may involve various stretches to strengthen intercostal muscles, foam roller stretches, and deep breathing exercises.

If difficult or painful breathing occurs, deep breathing exercises are often ordered to improve a person’s shallow breathing. Long-term shallow breathing can lead to complications, such as pneumonia.

A person with intercostal muscle strain should not do any stretching exercise unless under the supervision of a physical therapist or other healthcare providers.

Stretching should be stopped immediately if it increases pain or makes symptoms worse.

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Outlook and prevention

Mild intercostal muscle strain commonly heals within a few days. Moderate strains may take 3 to 7 weeks to heal, and severe strains that involve a complete tear of the muscles can take longer.

In general, most intercostal muscle sprains should heal within a 6-week time span.

Prevention of future muscle strains involves warming up and stretching before strenuous exercises are performed. It is important not to overdo it when it comes to working out or taking part in sports.

Keeping muscles strong also helps with the prevention of intercostal muscle strain.

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