Intercostal retractions

Definition

Intercostal retractions is when the muscles between the ribs pull inward. The movement is usually a sign that the person has a breathing problem.

Intercostal retractions are a medical emergency.  

Alternative Names

Retractions of the chest muscles

Considerations

The wall of your chest is flexible. This helps you breathe normally. Stiff tissue called cartilage attaches your ribs to the breast bone (sternum).

The intercostal muscles are the muscles between the ribs. During breathing, these muscles normally tighten and pull the rib cage up. Your chest expands and the lungs fill with air.

Intercostal retractions are due to reduced air pressure inside your chest. This can happen if the upper airway (trachea) or small airways of the lungs (bronchioles) become partially blocked. As a result, the intercostal muscles are sucked inward, between the ribs, when you breathe. This is a sign of airway obstruction. Any diseases or condition that causes a blockage in the airway will cause intercostal retractions.

Causes

When to Contact a Medical Professional

Seek immediate medical attention if intercostal retractions occur. This can be a sign of airway obstruction, which can quickly become life threatening.

Also seek medical care if the skin, lips, or nailbeds turn blue, or if the person becomes confused, drowsy, or is hard to wake up.

What to Expect at Your Office Visit

In emergency situations, the health care team will first take steps to help you breathe. You may receive oxygen, medicines to reduce swelling, and other treatments.

When you can breathe better, the doctor or nurse will examine you and ask questions about your medical history and symptoms, such as:

Tests that may be done include: