The sternum, or breastbone, is the flat bone where the ribs meet. Sometimes, the joints can pop or crack as a person stretches or moves. A muscle spasm, an injury, costochondritis, and surgery are some possible reasons for this.
Hearing the sternum popping can be discomforting, especially if a person has not heard or felt this before.
In many cases, a popping sternum is not a cause for concern. The joints that connect in the sternum can make noise as the person moves.
However, if the person has other symptoms in the area, such as pain or swelling, it may be best to see a doctor.
Learn more about the causes of sternum popping and what to do in this article.
A person may hear a creaking or popping sound in their sternum when doing everyday activities, such as stretching to reach an object or breathing deeply.
The sternum popping is not always a cause for concern. The sound may be like that of any other joint popping or cracking, such as those in the hips or neck.
However, if the sound occurs with other symptoms, it may be a sign of an underlying issue that needs treatment.
Possible medical causes of sternum popping include:
Almost any muscle in the body can spasm. If spasms occur in the muscles surrounding the chest, back, and shoulders, they may cause the joints and other tissues in the area to shift. This can lead to the sternum popping or crackling.
If popping and pain occur with a muscle spasm, it is likely that the spasm is causing these symptoms. If this occurs regularly, it is important for a doctor to determine what is causing the spasms.
Strains or sprains
A strain or sprain in the muscles or joints of the chest can also cause a popping sound in the sternum.
Muscles and connective tissues that are slightly out of place can swell, putting pressure on surrounding structures that can lead to a popping sound.
When this happens, the person will likely feel pain in the area, beyond that in the injured muscle or joint.
In the case of a minor strain or sprain, a doctor may recommend rest and home remedies for the pain.
Anyone who suspects that they have this type of injury should seek medical attention to make sure that there are no fractured bones in the area.
In some cases, a popping sound can indicate a fracture in the sternum. This can result from an injury, possibly caused by impact during sports or a car accident.
Sternum fractures can be very painful and may cause other symptoms, such as difficulty breathing and swelling in the chest. In some cases, the injury may also affect the lungs and heart.
Anyone who has experienced an injury to the chest and hears a popping sound in the sternum should see a doctor for a diagnosis.
If a fracture is severe, the person may need surgery to help it heal correctly.
Arthritis is not common in the sternum, but it can develop there.
A person with widespread or severe arthritis may hear clicking or popping sounds in their sternum as cartilage in the area wears down.
If a person with arthritis starts hearing their sternum pop, it may be a good idea to see a doctor to discuss adjustments to their treatment.
Costochondritis is inflammation in the connective cartilage throughout the rib cage. This inflammation can lead to concerning symptoms, such as chest pain that may resemble the pain of a heart attack.
If a person thinks that they may have costochondritis, they should see a doctor because it is vital to rule out other underlying issues that can cause similar symptoms.
Anyone who thinks they are experiencing a heart attack should receive emergency medical attention.
Tietze syndrome is a rare condition that causes inflammation in the ribs. The inflammation typically occurs where the second and third ribs attach to the breastbone, according to The National Organization for Rare Disorders.
The area will likely swell and may be painful to the touch. The pain may also spread to the arms and neck.
Anxiety or panic attack
Stress and anxiety can cause many physical symptoms.
A chronic stress or anxiety disorder can cause tension in the chest. This tension can contribute to symptoms such as a popping sound or pain.
In some cases, a person having a panic attack may confuse the symptoms for those of a heart attack. Learn more about symptoms of anxiety and panic attacks here.
Anyone having trouble with symptoms of stress or anxiety should talk to a doctor.
The effects of surgery can also lead to popping sounds in the sternum, in some cases.
A study in the journal Heart, Lung and Circulation noted that in the first few months after cardiac surgery, the sternum may move slightly during activities that involve the upper body.
While this movement is slight, it may cause popping sounds in the sternum as the structures shift.
However, if there is also pain or swelling in the area, a doctor should assess the person’s recovery.
A popping sternum is not usually a cause for concern. However, anyone who notices swelling or pain in the area should see a doctor.
While working to determine the underlying cause of these symptoms, the doctor will likely recommend treatments to help bring down the swelling and relieve any pain.
Depending on the cause and severity of the pain, the doctor may recommend prescription-strength medications or over-the-counter nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs), such as ibuprofen (Advil) or naproxen (Aleve), which can also reduce swelling.
Similarly, applying an ice pack wrapped in a towel to the chest for 20 minutes at a time may also relieve symptoms of muscle and connective tissue injuries.
In these cases, the popping or crackling noises may go away as the inflammation resolves.
If an injury to the area is responsible for the sound, the doctor will likely recommend rest. Avoiding overexertion — by taking a break from any heavy exercises that involve the shoulders, back, or chest — may reduce pressure and help injuries heal.
It is not always possible to prevent sternum popping.
Because this sound sometimes results from an injury, taking steps to reduce the risk of injury can help. For instance, stretching the muscles fully before and after strenuous workouts can help prevent muscle spasms and tightness that can lead to sprains and strains.
When stress or anxiety causes symptoms in the chest, finding ways to lower stress levels can help.
A popping or cracking sound in the sternum is generally not a cause for concern. However, anyone who wonders about the cause may wish to see a doctor.
This is especially important when any other symptoms, such as pain or swelling, accompany the sound. These may indicate an injury or another health issue in the area.
Symptoms that can accompany a popping sound in the sternum can resemble those of a heart attack. Anyone who experiences indications of a heart attack or other troubling chest symptoms should seek immediate medical attention.
Symptoms may include:
- shortness of breath
- a crushing feeling, as if there is a heavy weight on the chest
- pain in one or both arms or shoulders
- pain in the jaw or neck
- cold sweats
- unusual fatigue
These issues can indicate angina or a heart attack, and they require immediate medical attention.
The experience of a heart attack can vary by sex — learn about heart attack symptoms in females here.
Sternum popping can be a discomforting symptom. However, the sound alone is typically not a cause for concern.
If a person experiences any additional symptoms, such as pain, inflammation, or stiffness, they should see a doctor.
When minor injuries are responsible for these symptoms, simple home remedies, such as NSAIDs and rest, may be enough treatment.
Anyone who experiences chest pain, swelling, or other concerning symptoms should see a doctor.