Pulled Muscle in Chest: Causes, Symptoms, and Treatment

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Pulled Muscle in Chest: Causes, Symptoms, and Treatment
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Pulled muscles in the chest can cause mild to excruciating pain in your upper body. You have two large muscles on either side of your chest – the pectoralis major and pectoralis minor, which are sometimes referred to as your “pecs.” A pulled chest muscle can cause a sharp severe pain that radiates to your shoulder or arm. Because of this, the symptoms of pulled, strained, or torn muscles in the chest can be similar to a heart attack. Of course, it’s important to have any pains in your chest checked out especially if there is no discernible cause and the chest discomfort is accompanied by other symptoms.

Generally, pulled and strained muscles in your chest happen because of too much physical exertion. Depending on the severity of the injury, the symptoms of a pulled chest muscle can range from a slight twinge in your chest to severe pain if the pec muscle has become torn. Usually, athletes are at more risk from pulling muscles in their chest. However, older people and young children are also at risk from falling which could injure their upper body muscles.

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Pain from a pulled muscle could affect your everyday activities like cooking, lifting objects, driving your car, or other actions that involve your arms.

This article looks at the various reasons for pulling a chest muscle and how to spot the symptoms of chest muscle pain. This is important in order to differentiate between heart attack symptoms and strained chest muscle discomfort. You will also find practical ways to treat pulled pectoral muscles at home to help them heal quickly and relieve any discomfort your pecs are causing.

Muscles in Your Chest

Your pectoralis major and pectoralis minor muscles make up most of the muscle mass in your chest. According to the Encyclopaedia Britannica, your pectoralis muscles are connected to your breastbone and your upper arm and shoulders. These muscles are involved in almost all arm movements and are needed for strength – for example, pulling yourself up, lifting heavy objects, or doing pushups and other exercises.1

It is generally not common for healthy persons to tear their chest muscle. According to the journal Orthopedics, serious pec muscle injuries are mostly suffered by athletes or people who train in the gym. Most of the time, pulling a muscle in your chest happens during bench press or weight lifting. These types of chest muscle injuries result in loss of motion, pain, and discomfort in relation to the severity of the injury.2

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Signs and Symptoms of Pulled Chest Muscles

One of the most common symptoms of pulling a chest muscle is pain around the affected muscle. This may also radiate to the shoulder, arm, or even cause abdominal discomfort.

Dr. William Blahd on WebMD says that pulled muscle, strains, and tears can damage the muscle fibers and tendons. If the muscle is severely pulled, it may damage surrounding blood vessels and cause bleeding under the skin and bruising. This can cause pain even when you are not moving your arms or shoulders. A severe chest muscle pull may even result in not being able to use your arms at all while the muscle heals.3

Pectoral muscle strains are grouped into grades depending on the severity of the muscle damage. According to the journal Joints, muscle damage is graded into 3 categories as follows:4

Grade I chest muscle strains happen when parts of the chest muscle are pulled and tear a small number of fibers. This results in localized pain but won’t affect your ability to continue sporting activities.

Grade II chest muscle pulls happens when a larger number of muscle fibers are torn. This will cause more chest pain and may affect limb movement, for example, the ability to stretch or rotate your arm. It may be painful to touch the pulled chest muscle and may affect your ability to continue any strenuous physical activity.

Grade III chest muscle injuries are the most serious and occur when the pectoral muscle has been severely ruptured. This will cause a lot of pain in the chest, shoulder, arm, and back. You may also notice bruising if the injury has ruptured small blood vessels in the chest. According to the Journal of Trauma, grade III pectoralis muscle injuries may require surgical repair to prevent permanent damage and disability.5

Causes of Pulled Muscles in Chest

Although injury is the most common cause of pulling your chest muscles, there are other factors that can contribute to pulled chest muscles. First of all, let’s look in more detail at the types of injuries that can tear your pecs.

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Injury

According to Dr. Russell Warren from the Hospital for Special Surgery, pectoralis muscle injuries happen when there is too much force or weight on the muscle. Injury to the chest muscles often occurs when the arm is extended. The most common reason for injury is performing bench presses.

However, Dr. Warren says that engaging in sports like football, hockey, rugby, wrestling, and skiing can result in mild to traumatic injuries to your upper chest.6

So, any kind of strenuous physical activity that involves an outstretched arm that gets pulled, wrenched, or jerked suddenly could pull a muscle in your chest.

Repetitive injury strain

Some repetitive strain injuries are less traumatic to the chest muscles but can still result in mild pain and discomfort.

According to the website PhysioAdvisor.com, putting strain on your chest muscles over a long period of time could gradually weaken them. This could cause symptoms of a muscle pull in the chest. However, the repetitive strain on your pecs could weaken them to such a degree that you are at more risk of a pectoral muscle injury.7

Age

Age can have an indirect effect on pulling a muscle in your chest. As we age, our muscles, tendons, and ligaments lose some of their elasticity and strength. This can increase the risk of pulling a chest muscle if you fall with an outstretched arm.

Pulled Muscle in Chest or Heart Attack?

Very often, many people worry about a heart attack if they have chest pain. Sometimes, identifying the real cause of chest pain or pain under the ribs can be difficult. Your chest contains many organs, muscles, and bones that can be affected by different medical conditions. However, you should never ignore chest pain as it could be the first sign of a heart attack.

Both cardiac and pulled muscle chest pain can sometimes feel like constant pain or pain in chest that comes and goes. The later is called intermittent chest pain in which you feel on and off chest pain. Chest pain that comes in waves can be dull and mild and last for hours, days or even weeks, or it can be sharp and stabbing pain that lasts for a short period of time.

A common heart related condition that causes chest pain that comes and goes is angina caused by reduced blood flow to the heart. However there are other non-cardiac conditions that can cause pain in the heart area that comes and goes, such as pulled muscle grade I or II.

So how can you tell the difference between chest pain caused by a pulled muscle or a heart attack? Doctors from the Mayo Clinic advise that you should seek emergency medical help if you have any kind of chest pain lasting for more than a few minutes.8

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The American Heart Association say that the warning signs of a heart attack are:9

  • Chest discomfort that feels like a weight is pushing on or squeezing your chest. This chest pain may come and go and will usually last for more than a few minutes.
  • Radiated pain to your left arm (although the pain may be felt in both arms, neck,  jaw, or shoulders).
  • Shortness of breath may accompany chest discomfort, although you may feel no pain at all.
  • Cold sweats.
  • Nausea.
  • Lightheadedness.

Researchers from Harvard Medical say that there are some ways to tell chest muscle pain apart from cardiac pain. For example, chest pain that is worse when coughing, that only lasts a few seconds, or gets worse when the chest is pressed is less likely to be a symptom of cardiac pain. However, it is always better to err on the side of caution and have the pain checked out.10

The Mayo Clinic staff warns that not everyone has all these heart attack symptoms. Sometimes, the symptoms may appear suddenly or they may happen over a number of days and weeks. For any unusual chest pain, you should call the emergency services.11

Treatment and Recovery Time for Pulled Muscle in Chest

Treating a pulled muscle in your chest usually involves plenty of rest to prevent more chest and shoulder pain. When your pecs are tender and sensitive after an injury, they are at more risk of suffering a more serious injury.

R.I.C.E.

In most cases of a pulled muscle in the chest or another area of your body, the Sports Injury Clinic advises the R.I.C.E. method to relieve pain and promote healing. The RICE method stands for Rest, Ice, Compression, and Elevation.12

You can use the R.I.C.E. method this way to get pain relief and help the pulled chest muscle heal quicker:

Rest. It’s important to rest from all physical activity that could strain the pectoral muscles further. If any movement of your arms or upper body causes more chest pain, you should try to restrict these movements. This step is essential in the healing process.

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Ice. Ice packs can help to restrict blood flow to the damaged chest muscles and prevent bleeding and inflammation and relieve pain. You can use a bag of frozen vegetables or crushed up ice in a sealed plastic bag. Remember, never to place the ice pack directly on your skin but wrap it in a thin towel. Apply for 10-15 minutes at a time every hour for the first 2 days.

Compression. If possible, wrap an elastic bandage around the affected area in your chest to help reduce any swelling. The compression bandage will also help to restrict excessive movement of your chest muscles.

Elevate. If possible, sit up straight to help your blood circulation and promote healing in the affected areas.

Surgery

In cases of a severe muscle pull in your chest, doctors may recommend that you have an MRI scan done to see the extent of the muscle tear. In some cases, surgery is required to repair the damaged pectoral muscle and restore movement and strength to the affected muscle.13

How long does a pec strain take to heal?

With the proper care, a pec strain should heal within a few weeks. However, if you have suffered a severe muscle pull in your chest, it may take longer. PhysioAdvisor.com says that a severe pectoral strain or tear could take some months to heal. If you have had surgery to repair a complete muscle tear, then it could take up to 9 months to heal completely.7

How to Prevent Pulled Pectoral Muscles

In many cases, it is possible to prevent pulling a pec muscle in your chest. Keeping your muscles well-exercised and avoiding overstretching are just some ways you can prevent damaging your pectoral muscles.

Dr. William Blahd on WebMD recommends some steps to prevent pulling chest muscles. For example, it’s important to always warm up before exercising and stretch afterward.14

Physiotherapists recommend some ways of preventing pulling a pectoral muscle and these include:

  • Having the proper posture when sitting, standing, or lifting heavy objects.
  • Strengthening your core muscles.
  • Avoiding straining your pecs by not exercising excessively.
  • Use proper training techniques, especially when lifting weights and performing bench press.
  • Make sure that you fully recover after any injury of a chest muscle.

When to See a Doctor for Muscle Pain in Your Chest

Most cases of a pulled chest muscle are resolved when you treat the injury properly and get enough rest. However, in some cases, you should visit your doctor for muscle pain in your chest. Dr. William Blahd recommends seeing a medical professional for chest muscle injury in the following situations:3

  • There is significant swelling or pain in your chest.
  • You hear a popping sound with the injury.
  • You suffer a traumatic chest injury.
  • Home remedies for pain relief don’t help in the first 24 hours after injury.
  • There is no discernable cause of your chest pain.

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Article Sources

  1. Britannica. Pectoralis muscle.
  2. Orthopedics. 2012 Aug 1;35(8):e1184-90
  3. WebMD. The basics of muscle strains.
  4. Joints. 2016 Jan-Mar; 4(1): 39–46.
  5. J Trauma. 1980 Mar;20(3):262-4.
  6. HSS. Pectoralis major tendon injury.
  7. PhysioAdvisor. Pectoral strain.
  8. MayoClinic. Chest pain: first aid.
  9. Heart. Warning signs of a heart attack.
  10. HealthHarvard. Chest pain: a heart attack or something else?
  11. MayoClinic. Heart attack.
  12. SportsInjuryClinic. Pec strain.
  13. Radiology. 1999 Mar;210(3):785-91.
  14. WebMD. Muscle strain.
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