I Think I’ve Pulled A Muscle In My Chest. What Should I Do?

benefits of physical therapy improved strength

man pulled a muscle in chest causing pain

Do you have pain in the chest area that gets worse when you move or cough?

We know that when patients pull or strain a chest muscle, it can cause intense pain. It can be especially painful if the muscle gets torn or excessively stretched beyond its usual range of motion. A large majority of the cases of pulled muscles in the chest stem from a condition we call intercostal muscle strain.”

The intercostal muscles are made up of three different layers. Together, these three layers of muscle primarily assist in providing stability when you breathe. 

Generally, when you pull a muscle in your chest, the symptoms go away independently with conservative treatment at home. But in some cases, you may need to see a doctor or physical therapist if the pain is long-lasting. 

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What Are The Symptoms Of A Pulled Muscle In The Chest?

woman lying in bed awake as can't sleep

There can be many different symptoms associated with a pulled muscle in the chest, but the main ones we see are:

  • Swelling and pain, which can be dull or acute 
  • Difficulty in moving the chest
  • Painful breathing 
  • Muscle spasms 
  • Signs of bruising 

However, suppose you feel sudden chest pain while exercising or performing strenuous activity. In that case, we recommend that you seek medical attention right away. Some other symptoms also require urgent medical attention because they could indicate a heart attack. They include:

  • Severe issues with breathing 
  • Dizziness and fainting
  • A racing pulse accompanied by sweating
  • Feeling unusually irritable
  • Sleepiness and/or fever

What Causes Muscle Pain In The Chest?

man lifting weights causing shoulder pain

In most cases, a pulled muscle causes chest wall pain due to over-exertion of some kind. This exertion could be due to carrying a very heavy object or sprain while playing sports or at the gym. Any activity that involves repetitive motion also poses the risk of chronic chest strain. 

Additional activities that can lead to chest pain are: 

  • Stretching the arms over the head for an extended time 
  • Lifting something heavy when twisting the body 
  • Contact sports injuries of any type 
  • Muscle fatigue
  • Not warming up before working out 
  • Flexibility issues 
  • Falling forward 

Some medical conditions can also lead to pulling a muscle in the chest – like a cold or bronchitis. The excessive coughing that these conditions cause then leads to muscle pain in the chest.

Who Is At Risk?

older man experiencing chest pain

Certain groups have a higher risk of pulling a muscle in the chest. They include:

  • The elderly because of the risk of injury from falls
  • People who are physically active and involved in sports activities 

Kids are at the least risk of developing a pulled muscle in the chest.

Is It A Pulled Muscle?

If you have chest pain and are unsure about the cause, we recommend that you book a consultation so we can diagnose the root cause and start working to fix it. During the consultation, we ask about your health, symptoms, and any activity you do that may contribute to the pain. Sometimes, we may recommend additional tests to rule out other health conditions. 

We classify muscle strain into two types: chronic and acute

  • Chronic strain: this happens due to repetitive activities like performing certain tasks at work or sports and leisure activities. 
  • Acute strain: is generally caused due to some kind of injury, such as an accident or a fall. 

We also grade muscle strains based on the severity of the injury, as follows:

  • Grade 1: When 5% or less of the muscle fibers are strained, causing mild damage.   
  • Grade 2: There is increased damage to the muscle fibers that may not be ruptured but reduced mobility and strength. 
  • Grade 3: There is a complete rupture in the muscle fiber that may need surgery. 

But there are many other common reasons why you might have pain in the chest area that don’t relate to a pulled muscle, including:

  • Digestive issues like reflux 
  • Bruising due to an injury
  • Peptic ulcers
  • Pericarditis
  • Anxiety/panic attacks 

Plus, there are some other more serious medical reasons like:

  • A pulmonary embolism (blood clot in the lung artery)
  • A tear in the aorta
  • Angina (when the blood flow reduces to the heart) 

That’s why getting a proper diagnosis is important instead of assuming it’s “just a pulled muscle.” If you would like our help with this, you can book a free consultation (Discovery Visit) where we can quickly diagnose the root cause and put your mind at ease. 

What Is The Treatment For Chest Muscle Pain?

man with back pain using ice pack for relief

The most common method of treatment for muscle pain in the chest that is mild is RICE: 

  • Rest: Completely stop any activity when you feel pain and take adequate rest until the pain dissipates after a day or two.  
  • Ice: Use an ice pack daily on the affected part of your chest and do this three times per day for up to 20 minutes each time. 
  • Compression: If inflammation occurs, firmly wrap an elastic compression bandage around your chest. However, avoid wrapping it extremely tightly as it might affect blood circulation. 
  • Elevation: Sleep in an inclined or sloping position at night to elevate your chest and reduce pain and inflammation. 

These DIY treatments should suffice for mild cases of chest strain. The pain and other symptoms should subside after a couple of days. You can also take anti-inflammatory medication if you are uncomfortable and in pain.

But use cautiously and avoid where possible – due to long-term use’s potential negative side effects. But if the pain lasts for more than a couple of days, you will benefit from physical therapy and the specific movements we perform to treat any muscle imbalances that could be contributing to or causing your pain.

In extremely rare cases, you may require surgery to fix the issue. But prompt treatment with physical therapy can help you avoid surgery. 

Recovering From A Pulled Muscle In The Chest  

muscles in the chest depicted by a diagram/x-ray

When you have muscle pain in the chest, you should take care to avoid all types of strenuous activity to aid your recovery. Once the symptoms and the pain subside, you can start to return to your normal routine, but this should be done slowly and not all at once.

If you feel discomfort at any point, make a point to get adequate rest. Recovering from a pulled muscle in the chest depends on how severe (grade) the strain is.

While a mild strain should improve within a week or two, anything more severe than that may take a month or longer to heal completely, so you may be “out” (work/gym/sports) for a while. Similarly, if you need to undergo surgery, you may need six months or more to recover.

The exact timings for recovery/rest should be based on advice from your doctor or physical therapist.

If you do attempt to carry out strenuous activities when you have a muscle strain – like going to the gym or playing sports – before you’re ready, you will only aggravate the injury and prolong your recovery.  

Other complications can be associated with chest muscle strains, including breathing issues and lung infections. Still, these are incredibly rare and highly unlikely in the cases of mildly pulled muscles.  

When you are ready to return to your activity and you’ve cleared it with your physical therapist, follow these tips to prevent further injury:

  • Whenever you work out or exercise, you should warm up before and cool down afterward to prevent strain. 
  • Take a break from exercising and/or make sure your body is recovering well between workouts. Overworking muscles and not getting adequate rest and recovery can lead to strain. 
  • Be extra careful when you participate in activities with a risk of injury or falling. 
  • Avoid carrying heavy backpacks for long periods. When you lift heavy objects, make sure you distribute the weight evenly and don’t pull through the chest muscles, or even better, ask for assistance. 

Do I Need Physical Therapy If I’ve Pulled A Muscle? 

Most chest strains get better conservative treatment and adequate rest. However, some patients develop lasting symptoms from this type of injury – especially if the original injury was a high-grade strain.

Physical therapy is the most effective mode of treatment if you have lasting symptoms associated with a chest muscle strain. We can help you rehabilitate the muscles and connective tissue in this area, reduce scar tissue and get you moving well again.

To get started, you can book a free consultation to learn more about how we can help. 


Andrew Vertson

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