Alexandra earned her master's degree in nursing education and is currently a hospital supervisor/administrator.
A Dream Deferred
Imagine you are a tennis player, and you finally achieve your lifelong dream of playing in Wimbledon. After warming up for the match, you walk up to the service line to get the match started on your serve. As you toss the ball up, you twist your midsection in order to generate more power, but suddenly you feel a sharp pain around your ribs and immediately begin to wince.
You call the trainer to come over, and you point to the place where you are experiencing pain--directly between your second and third rib on your right side. The trainer is familiar with this type of injury and tells you you have strained your intercostal muscle. You will have to retire and your dreams of winning Wimbledon this year are dashed. As this example shows, an injury to the intercostal muscle can cause severe pain and negatively affect the ability of a person to function. In this lesson, we will learn about what the intercostal muscles are, where they are located, and what they do.
The intercostal muscles are located in the chest between the ribs. In order to understand more about the intercostal muscles, the ribs must be addressed. There are twelve ribs in the chest. Each of the rib bones is symmetrical on the right and left side of the body. The ribs essentially attach to the sternum and wrap around the chest to the spine. The exception is the eleventh and twelfth rib, which only connects to the spine, not the sternum. The intercostal muscles can be an easily forgotten muscle. It is not a muscle that needs to be exercised or strengthened. However, they are extremely important for survival.
With that being said, there are certain exercises that can make the intercostal muscles sore. Pilates is a type of exercise that focuses heavily on breathing, control, and posture. When done correctly, one will feel the intercostal muscles and remember that they exist. There are twenty-two pairs of intercostal muscles that connect each of the ribs together except for the twelfth rib which is the lowest rib. They are divided into two groups consisting of eleven external intercostal muscles and eleven internal intercostal muscles. There is also a small set of muscles that are called the innermost intercostal muscles. These muscles protect the lungs as well as help control the movement of the chest while breathing.
Function of Intercostal Muscles
Essentially, the intercostal muscles aid in breathing by controlling the movement of the chest. However, the external and internal intercostal muscles each play different roles. The external intercostal muscles help with inhalation when breathing. The muscles contract and shorten which elevates and expands the ribs as lung volume increases. The process of exhaling during regular breathing usually does not involve the internal intercostal muscles. Instead, exhaling is just the external intercostal muscles relaxing.
The internal intercostal muscles are used when exhaling with force. The muscles contract and shorten which bring the ribs closer together as the lungs decrease in size. The innermost intercostal muscles are the weakest of the intercostal muscles and also assist with inhalation when breathing by contracting the muscles. Once again, in the pilates practice, which focuses on breathing and core work, the intercostal muscles are being exercised and pushed. The internal intercostal muscles are engaged in pilates as there is an emphasis on deep breathing, both inhaling and exhaling.
Location of the Intercostal Muscles
The external intercostal muscles are located on the outer surface of the ribs and are positioned at a diagonal in between each rib. The muscles run in a downward direction and towards the center of the body. The internal intercostal muscles are located deeper in the chest wall inside the rib case. The muscles run in an upward direction and towards the center of the body. The external and internal intercostal muscles are perpendicular to each other. The innermost intercostal muscles are the deepest of the three intercostal muscle groups. Like the internal intercostal muscles, they run in an upward direction and towards the center of the body. They are located behind the internal intercostal muscles in the intercostal space.
Injury to the Intercostal Muscles
Twisting, forcefully swinging the arms, and jerking movements can place a strain on the intercostal muscles. Sports such as tennis, swimming, basketball, pilates, and gymnastics can cause pain to the intercostal muscles. However, pain can also occur when doing simple things such as housework or catching yourself from a fall. When the intercostal muscles are strained or injured you will feel chest and rib pain. The pain can be sharp and constant, and the muscles will be tender to touch. Breathing deeply will cause the pain to increase. Ice applied to the injured muscles will help with the pain. Relaxation and anti-inflammatory medications will decrease the pain and allow for the muscles to heal. It may take several weeks for the intercostal muscles to return to normal.
The intercostal muscles consist of external, internal, and innermost muscles that play an important role in controlling the movement of the chest while breathing. The intercostal muscles are located in the ribs and connect them together. The external intercostal muscles help the ribs expand while inhaling and the internal intercostal muscles helps the ribs shrink when forcefully exhaling. Injury to the intercostal muscles are caused by twisting, swinging the arms, jerking movements, or trauma. Ice, relaxation, and anti-inflammatory medications will help the muscles heal over the span of several weeks.
Medical Disclaimer: The information on this site is for your information only and is not a substitute for professional medical advice.
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