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A considerable number of people are puzzled by the sound of sternum popping. This is described as a popping or cracking sound that one hears when doing some stretching exercises. A few people also experience some pain, swelling and tender joints. A number of things can cause popping sternum and more often than not, it is not a cause of concern. However, there are instances when a popping sternum requires prompt medical attention, especially when it is accompanied by pain.

Sternum popping is treated based on what has lead to its occurrence. It rarely requires surgical intervention as majority of cases respond to conventional therapy and NSAID medications. The aim of the treatment is to help those who suffer from it deal with the pain as well as prevent further damage. But if the popping sternum comes with a painful sensation and becomes disabling, it would be best pay the doctor a visit the soonest.

What causes the sternum to pop out?

Medical experts have not fully understood the mechanism behind sternum popping, although they have various theories regarding its occurrence. Oftentimes, the popping sound is heard when the arms are stretched wide or during deep breathing. In some individuals, it occurs spontaneously. The popping sound may stem from the joints connecting the ribs and breastbone. It may also come from shattering tendons or ligaments, joint or bone rubbing against each other, or as simple as gas bubbles being released.

The following are some of the possible causes of popping sternum.

  • Partial dislocation of joints

Joints become partially dislocated when the ligaments connected to the rib bones snap over the rib joints when stretching.  This occurs when the ligaments become tight, such as when performing exercises that put too much pressure on the chest wall, like bench presses. This would prevent it from moving smoothly over the bones, thus, squeezing the rib joints when stretching or moving to a new position.

  • Synovial gas

The synovial fluid covers the cartilage to provide cushioning in the joints within the rib cage as well as facilitate the smooth movement of bones in the joint. The fluid is composed of several different gases and gas bubbles may develop and eventually burst if the joint expands when the ribs are stretched beyond their range. Popping sounds are produced when these gas bubbles snap between the tendons and ligaments.

  • Inflamed cartilage

The cartilage swells due to chest infection which could usually happen after surgery or repeated trauma. This typically occurs in Tietze’s syndrome and costochondritis in which the 2nd and 3rd ribs are affected or 4th to 6th ribs, respectively.

  • Injury in the chest area

Sustaining an injury to the chest area, be it from an accidental fall, vehicular accident or heavy punch, puts extra pressure on the chest muscles and rib joints and even damage the tendons and ligaments.

  • Degeneration of the joint lining

A degenerating joint makes grating sounds and can be responsible for sternum popping. This usually happens with rheumatoid arthritis and osteoarthritis.

When does sternum popping become a cause of concern?

A popping sternum only becomes a cause of concern when it is accompanied by pain, swelling and restricted chest movement. In such cases, sufferers should not delay visiting the doctor. More often, sternum popping is not a medical emergency and usually clears up with conservative therapy, pain medications and NSAIDs.

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