Intercostal Muscles: A Brief History
The intercostals are the muscles located between your ribs. They support your rib cage and act as a shock absorber.
These muscles are also known as the diaphragm or belly button muscles because they surround the lungs. You may have heard about them before from other medical professionals but it was only through research that they were discovered to be vital to health.
The intercostals are responsible for holding air inside your body during physical activity. When you exercise, the muscles contract to push air out of your lungs and into your chest cavity.
If these muscles do not work properly, then you will experience shortness of breath when exercising. Your heart rate increases and blood pressure rises due to increased oxygen intake. Other symptoms include nausea, vomiting, dizziness and weakness.
In order to prevent these symptoms, you need to strengthen your intercostals. There are several ways to do so.
Some of which include stretching the muscles, using elastic bands and even drugs such as steroids. However, none of these methods are effective in all cases. The best way is through regular exercise and proper training. Proper training involves learning how to use your intercostals effectively while performing activities like walking up stairs or lifting weights.
Strengthening your intercostals through a sport or other form of physical activity such as swimming is important because it combats the many factors that weaken these muscles. For example, prolonged sitting in front of a computer weakens your intercostals because it causes your body to hunch over while you work.
Long periods of time spent in this position restricts blood flow to your vital organs and prevents proper breathing for extended periods of time. Fortunately, strengthening your intercostals can also improve your posture and make you more conscious about the way that you sit and stand.
Common Causes of Weak or Injured Intercostals
There are many factors that lead to injury of the intercostals. These include:
Sedentary Lifestyle: As was mentioned earlier, sitting in front of a computer for long periods of time can lead to weakened intercostals. A sedentary lifestyle weakens these muscles because they do not get the same blood flow as more active muscles.
If you spend a majority of your time sitting, then it’s important to take breaks at least once or twice an hour in order to walk around a bit. This is also important after long periods of time spent in the same position such as when driving or flying for longer periods of time.
Prolonged Physical Inactivity: Not exercising regularly can lead to weakness and injury of the intercostals. If you do not engage in a certain amount of physical activity on a daily basis then your body will adapt to this lifestyle by weakening muscles that are not used.
You may notice this if you try to exercise one day and find that your muscles are very weak. This can be combated by getting regular exercise every other day even if it is just a short walk around the block.
Obesity: Being obese leads to many health problems and one of these is intercostal weakness. The additional weight that your body is carrying puts pressure on your vital organs such as the heart and lungs.
This pressure prevents these organs from functioning properly which in turn weakens the intercostals. Obesity can also lead to improper sitting or standing posture which can lead to weakness of these muscles.
Pregnancy: Pregnancy weakens the intercostals because hormones are released in the body which cause the muscles to relax. It is very important to maintain physical activity during pregnancy in order to combat these effects.
Aging: As you age, your body begins to weaken and this includes the intercostals. The best way to combat this is through exercise because it strengthens your muscles.
If you are elderly, then it’s especially important to exercise on a regular basis.
Injury: Any sort of injury can lead to weakness or tearing of intercostals. Even minor accidents such as slipping and falling can lead to injury and pain.
If you’ve experienced this type of injury, then it’s best to seek medical attention.
Poor Posture: Slouching or standing with a hunched back can lead to weakness of the intercostals. This is because your body adapts to your posture and reinforces bad habits.
If you want to correct this, then it’s important to practice good posture even if it is uncomfortable in the beginning.
Treatment and Prevention of Injuries
If you experience pain or injury in your intercostals, then it is best to seek medical attention. You should follow your doctor’s orders and take the time that is needed in order to recover.
If you don’t take the time to recover properly, then you can re-injure the muscle which will prolong your recovery.
The intercostals are located in an easily injured area of the body so it is prone to injury. Unlike other muscles, these muscles cannot be seen or felt so it is easy to overlook the pain and not treat it properly.
The best way to avoid this type of injury is through proper exercise and following a healthy lifestyle.
It’s important that you don’t exercise to the point where it causes pain. If you feel pain, then you should stop what you are doing and try again another day.
Over-exercise and not giving your body time to heal can lead to more serious injuries such as tearing of the intercostals.
It’s also important that you don’t ignore the warning signs your body is giving you. If something hurts then there is usually a reason for it such as overuse or injury.
Ignoring the pain can lead to a more serious injury or cause more long-term damage. If you experience sudden and severe pain when breathing, then you should seek medical attention immediately.
Preventing overuse or injury can be done by taking time to warm-up before you start exercising. It’s also a good idea to stretch the intercostals after you exercise because this helps to prevent soreness and tightness.
Stretching should be held for about thirty seconds to one minute on each side. It’s also a good idea to do core strengthening in order to stabilize your spine.
It is also important to make sure that your pillow is not causing any neck or back pain while you sleep. A lot of people tend to sleep in an awkward position which can lead to pain and tightness.
This can also cause overuse injuries of the neck and shoulder muscles. It’s a good idea to get a pillow that supports your head and neck in a neutral position. This will help keep your spine in line and prevent pain and injury.
Proper breathing is an important part of preventing injury to the intercostal muscles. When you are exercising, it’s a good idea to make sure that you are breathing out on the exertion part of the exercise.
So if you are doing a bicep curl, then you should be breathing out when your elbow reaches the top of the motion.
This type of breathing keeps the pressure off of the intercostals and puts the pressure on the larger chest muscles instead. This will prevent overworking the intercostals and help to prevent injury or pain in this area.
What Not To Do
There are some things that you should avoid doing if you want to prevent injury to these muscles. First of all, you should never hold your breath.
This increases blood pressure and puts a lot of stress on the body. It also increases pressure on the intercostals which can lead to pain and injury.
Another thing you should avoid is lifting more weight than you are able. If you don’t have proper form when lifting weights, then you could easily throw your back out of place or hurt your spine by swinging your arms which causes all of the weight to go onto your back.
Sources & references used in this article:
The contribution of the intercostal muscles to the effort of respiration in man by A Taylor – The Journal of Physiology, 1960 – ncbi.nlm.nih.gov
Respiratory action of the intercostal muscles by A De Troyer, PA Kirkwood… – Physiological …, 2005 – journals.physiology.org
Respiratory effects of the external and internal intercostal muscles in humans by TA Wilson, A Legrand, PA Gevenois… – The Journal of …, 2001 – Wiley Online Library
Respiratory mechanics in quadriplegia. The respiratory function of the intercostal muscles by A De Troyer, A Heilporn – American Review of Respiratory Disease, 1980 – atsjournals.org