Expand Those Ribs and Meet Your Intercostals


Really, what could possibly feel good about having the tissue in between the front ribs massaged? Why would any of us want massage work done on areas where it feels either uncomfortable or just straight up odd? The body’s feedback often gives reason in the moment; feeling the anterior torso breathe open, or noticing referrals to other sore muscles light-up. Or it can be in what we sense right after the work, moving around feeling lighter and more flexible. Since structure and function walk hand in hand within this beautiful system of the human body, working on areas that can be bony with less tissue mass, small or difficult to access, and which might feel unusual when addressed, can also be surprisingly revelatory. It’s as if you just met a truly nice, interesting neighbor who’s been there all along, though you’ve never spoken. You feel energized, engaged, and more aware from this expansion.

So what can working on the intercostal muscles, these tiny and tight little tissue areas in between the anterior ribs, technically do? Opening up the front torso directly affects its counterpart, the back – one of the top areas that nag people with chronic soreness and pain. As we get curled forward with gravity, stress, and struggling posture, that tight anterior torso over stretches our already taxed backs. More structure and function, since the intercostal muscles assist in respiration, relieving tightness there improves our breathing.

  1. Whether working on yourself or a client who’s given permission for this focus, place the fingertips of both hands lightly at the top of the sternum/breast bone. Keeping fingers closely knit together is supportive for the hands when working; it feels strong keeping the bones of the hand close together like a team. If you’re working on a female client, this compact grouping of hands/fingers also helps keep you further away from breast tissue.
  2. The focus here is on an often very tender zone right where the intercostals end against the sides of the sternum or breast bone (also fortunately keeping the work from intruding on female breast tissue). Working one side at a time, slowly push the forefinger and middle finger laterally off the sternum into the space between the uppermost ribs. You can feel the density of the rib bones above and below this small space. Anchor the fingertips in, moving them minutely in a horizontal direction for a few strokes, and then a vertical direction. The space is so small, so will the movement be.
  3. Working one whole side gently open before switching hands/fingertips and moving to the other allows the person receiving to notice differences between the sides, letting sensations stand out more clearly. Each little space between ribs, abutting right alongside the sternum will probably feel different to palpate and to receive. Each has different information to give. 
  4. The pectorals major muscle also runs along most of the sternum. Working on the medial part of the intercostals will simultaneously work into where pec major attaches along the sternum. A lot of hidden, surprising soreness lies in pec major, making the aforementioned intercostal work that much more beneficial.

In getting to know your own body better, or in guiding a client to experience more of theirs through massage therapy, there’s this warm sense of solidity and security that arises; understanding how different parts of our bodies work, how they feel in being worked on, and how addressing them interacts with how other areas of the body feel. This exploration truly puts us back in our body. It’s an ongoing journey of self-exploration, ownership, and self-care – never boring, often surprising, ever useful. A grounding sense of comfort is derived from feeling what your body is telling you and owning all parts of it with gratitude and kind, loving attentiveness.

Copyright © by Lara Stillo 2017



I have been licensed and working full time in the massage therapy field since 2001, teaching and writing MT courses since 2006. My experience has led me through working with several different chiropractors, hotel and boutique spas, corporate massage, a climbing gym wellness center, private practice, two different massage schools, one acupuncture/massage college, and my current capacity of working with physical therapy clinics and their patients. And the learning continues…

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