Straining a chest muscle may cause a sharp pain in your chest, a sensation that, if it is anywhere near the heart, may well scare people into thinking they are having cardiac issues. While a pulled chest muscle is not as serious as a heart attack, it is nevertheless painful and not as easy to pinpoint as a pulled hamstring.
Your chest muscles are responsible for supporting your upper body and for helping you breathe properly and can have a negative impact on the health of your back if they are not in optimal working order.
Generally, the major muscles of the chest are the appropriately named pectoralis majors, the fan-shaped muscles that go from your armpits to the center of your breast bone. These muscles help move your shoulders and keep your arms attached to your body. The pectoralis minor muscles are smaller triangular muscles under each pectoralis major. They run along your upper ribs. Then there are your intercostal muscles, which run between the ribs and help form the chest wall. They expand and contract your chest cavity to allow for the inflating and deflating of your lungs as you breathe. Straining muscles in this area may make breathing more laborious.
Causes & Symptoms of Pulled Chest Muscle
Pulled muscle chest pain that is caused by a strained or pulled muscle often happens as a result of overuse; you may have lifted something heavy or injured yourself from playing sports. For instance, gymnastics, rowing, tennis, and golf all involve repetitive motion and may cause chronic strains. Other activities that may cause strain include:
- Lifting while twisting your body
- Contact injuries from sports or vehicle accidents
- Reaching your arms above your head for an extended period of time
- Skipping warm-ups before any activity
- Lack of flexibility or athletic conditioning
- Muscle fatigue
- Injury from malfunctioning equipment
Some illnesses may also cause muscle strain in the chest. If you have recently had a chest cold or bronchitis, it is likely that you may have pulled a muscle while coughing. Muscle strains also occur when any muscle is overly stretched or torn, and each one needs immediate care and rest to repair itself. The symptoms of a pulled chest muscle include:
- Acute muscle pain
- Chronic muscle pain
- Pain during breathing
- Muscle spasms
- A difficult time moving the affected area
If this pain suddenly occurs due to strenuous activity or exercise, it is recommended that you seek medical attention, as it can become more serious than just a strain. Chest pain is an emergency if it is also associated with dizziness, fainting, sweating, a racing pulse, fever, sudden sleepiness, irritability, or difficulty breathing. The duration of a pulled chest muscle depends on the severity of the strain. Therefore, if your strain is mild, expect it to resolve within a few days or weeks.
Severe strains may take 2 months or longer to heal. If your chest pain sticks around for more than twelve weeks, it is considered chronic and may be resulting from long-term activities and repetitive motions. Whether you are experiencing acute or chronic pain, physiotherapy can help decrease pain, strengthen the muscle, and restore movement. If your pain does not subside through physiotherapy, you may need to visit a physician or orthopedic surgeon.
Who gets a Pulled Chest Muscle?
It is important to keep in mind that certain patients may be at risk of straining chest muscles. For example, older adults who are vulnerable to falling injuries have a higher risk of pulling a chest muscle. Athletes are also at high risk due to the nature of competitive playing.
In addition, those involved in car accidents also have a higher rate of chest muscle injury, sometimes from the safety devices involved in a vehicle (such as seatbelts and airbags in cars). Lastly, Children have the lowest risk of experiencing a pulled chest muscle because of their higher flexibility, which is the reason why it’s always important for young adults and older adults to stretch properly not just before sports, but before any strenuous activity.
How Does It Affect You - How Serious Is It?
A pulled muscle in the chest wall may feel similar to a more serious problem with the heart or lungs. Understanding the difference between these types of pain can help patients seek emergency treatment when necessary. Here are some causes and complications of chest pain, including the following:
The pain of a heart attack differs from that of a strained chest muscle. A heart attack may cause dull pain or an uncomfortable feeling of pressure in the chest. Normally, the pain begins in the center of the chest, and it may radiate outward to one or both arms, the back, neck, jaw, or stomach. The pain may last for several minutes, and it may disappear and return in some cases.
Pleuritis refers to inflammation of the lining of the lungs. A bacterial or viral infection is the most common cause due to this condition. Pleuritis can cause pain that feels like a pulled chest muscle. It is generally sharp, sudden, and increases in severity when taking a breath. Unlike a strained muscle, pleuritis may cause additional symptoms, such as fever and muscle aches.
Also known as stable angina, is chest pain resulting from coronary heart disease. Angina pectoris occurs when there is not enough blood getting to the heart due to the narrowing or blockage of the arteries. The symptoms of stable angina are similar to those of a heart attack but may be shorter in duration, typically disappearing within 5 minutes. These symptoms usually occur after physical exertion and go away after resting or taking medication.
A pulmonary embolism (PE) refers to a blockage of the blood vessels within the lungs. The most common cause is a blood clot. A PE stops blood from getting to the lungs and is, therefore, a medical emergency is required for further treatment.
This is an infection that causes the air sacs within the lungs to fill with fluid or pus. Viruses, bacteria, and fungi can all cause pneumonia. A patient living with pneumonia may experience a sharp or stabbing pain in the chest, which worsens when coughing or breathing deeply.
Recommended Treatment, Rehabilitation & Supporting Equipment
Throughout the diagnosis of a pulled chest muscle, your doctor will begin by asking you about your symptoms, your health history, and any activities that may have contributed to your pain.
Firstly, muscle strain is generally categorized as either acute or chronic, as described below:
- Acute strains – result from injuries sustained immediately after direct trauma.
- Chronic strains – result from long-term activities, such as repetitive motion used in sports or job tasks.
Furthermore, strains are then graded according to severity:
- Grade 1 – mild damage to less than five percent of muscle fibers.
- Grade 2 – indicates more damage, as the muscle isn’t fully ruptured, but there is a loss of strength and mobility.
- Grade 3 – a complete muscle rupture, which in most cases, requires surgery.
In some cases, your doctor may order imaging tests to rule out other conditions, such as a heart attack, bone fractures, and other issues. These tests include X-ray, magnetic resonance imaging (MRI), and electrocardiogram (ECG).
Physiotherapy treatments can be quite effective in decreasing pain after injury and in reducing damaging postural effects. Ice is used on an acute strain that is inflammatory, but eventually, moist heat can be applied to increase blood flow to the muscle to help the tightness relax. Electrical stimulation from a TENS device can also be used to deliver pain relief that gives a feeling in which an electric current is passed through your muscle and gives it a vibratory sensation. This vibration sensation travels to your brain faster than the pain signals and therefore masks the pain non-narcotically.
Because of the fibers of the pectoral muscles, the range of motion in your shoulder may be compromised. Flexion, the ability to raise the arms overhead, may be reduced and because of the fibers of the pec minor, an injury from that location would cause a forward rotation of the arm and shoulder blade. Additionally, Manual therapy and physiotherapy exercises are performed in therapy to help restore motion.
Physiotherapy is then discontinued when you are finally able to return to all of your daily activities without pain and have returned to sports activities with full participation. It is important to keep in mind that severe pectoral muscle injuries may require further medical care; especially if the tear involves the pectoral tendon or is large enough to not be able to heal on its own. If your physiotherapist does not feel that your chest is healing quickly enough in the usual timeline for soft tissue healing, then a visit to a physician or an orthopedic surgeon may be required.
Once the chest muscle strain subsides, stretching and strengthening exercises can help restore your chest muscles to full functionality. Here are some simple exercises you can try, as described below:
Stretching exercises can improve the flexibility of your pectoral muscles. You can do them standing upright by engaging your arms. Try shoulder rotations in which you bend your elbow at a 90-degree angle and rotate your shoulder, moving your lower arm away from your body as far as you can. Other stretches include raising both extended arms overhead or out to your sides and slightly pulling them back to emphasize the stretch in your chest. Hold each stretch for about 10 seconds and work your way up to 30 seconds. Finally, repeat the stretches 10 times, 1-3 times a day.
Light resistance can gradually and safely increase the strength of your chest muscles. Simply pushing your fist into your hand for five seconds while resisting the tension is an effective exercise that is ideally done 10 times. The plank exercise also strengthens your chest, but before doing a full plank in which you hold your body up on your hands and feet, condition yourself on all fours. Transfer your weight back and forth so your body gets used to the pressure. Shoulder rotations in which you bring your bent arm in toward your body against the resistance of an exercise band can also strengthen your pectorals.
Alternative & Homeopathic Treatment
One of the most common at-home treatments for mild chest muscle strains involves rest, ice, compression, and elevation (RICE), as described below:
- Rest – Stop activity as soon as you notice pain and rest for a few days before resuming to light activities two days after resting.
- Ice application – Apply ice or a cold pack to the affected area for 20 minutes up to 3 times a day.
- Compression – Wrap any areas of inflammation with an elastic bandage but do not wrap too tightly as it may impair circulation.
- Elevation – Keep your chest evaluated, especially at night time.
With home treatment, your symptoms from a mild pulled muscle chest should subside in a few weeks. While you wait for a full recovery, you may take pain relievers to reduce discomfort and inflammation, such as ibuprofen or acetaminophen.