6 Painful Chest Muscle Strain Symptoms 

Chest muscle strain symptoms

Most chest muscle strain symptoms occur after pulling or injuring an intercostal muscle, or a rib muscle. These muscles are responsible for lifting and expanding the ribcage and chest cavity, causing pain when breathing, coughing, or moving the upper body through certain ranges of motion. Let us go over a few common symptoms together.  

Chest pain can mean a lot of different things. When the worst comes to pass, chest pain may be a sign of a heart health issue, including a cardiac arrest or abnormal heart rate. Other causes of chest pain include chondritis, disc herniation, or a viral infection. But a lot of the time – nearly half of the time, in fact – chest pain tends to be the result of an injured or inflamed rib muscle, also known as an intercostal muscle.  

Intercostal muscles exist as three separate layers of tissue between each of your ribs. These are the innermost intercostal muscles, the internal intercostal muscles, and the external intercostal muscles. Altogether, these muscles are responsible for forced inhalation and exhalation, as well as depressing (lowering) the ribcage and tightening the chest cavity.  

Your intercostal muscles move and stretch as you move your upper body, through a variety of motions. The most common way to strain a rib muscle is by rapidly twisting your torso while lifting something overhead, or through an overhead motion with a heavy weight or resistance.  

Common Chest Muscle Strain Symptoms 

Sometimes, a strain can occur due to a lack of warmups or physical conditioning, such as swinging a golf club with full force after weeks or months of inactivity or swinging a baseball bat. Many people who have been active in the past but have been sedentary for a while might try to get back into the swing of things with the same reps or resistance as before and pull or tear a muscle in the process.  

Not all chest pain is the result of an intercostal injury. Sometimes, other muscles in the chest may be acutely damaged – including the pectoralis minor and major. Serious injuries in these muscles may result in bruising, in addition to tenderness and difficulty moving your arms and shoulder without pain.  

Most chest muscle strains are minor and heal up on their own. However, it’s still important to keep an eye out for your symptoms – and to see a medical professional immediately if the pain goes from inconvenient to severe, or if other unusual symptoms occur.  

Pain When Touching 

Chest pain that gets worse when you poke around the painful area tends to be musculoskeletal. Tenderness, as it is called, means that the muscle in question has been injured. The pain is often a sign from the body to leave that area alone and let the muscle recover. Bruising is another telltale sign, showing that there has been minor bleeding as a result of a torn or overstretched muscle.  

Pain When Breathing Deeply 

Most chest muscle strain pain is the result of an injured rib muscle. Like a broken or fractured rib, an injured intercostal muscle can result in painful breathing, both on the inhale and the exhale.  

Chest Pain Radiating Outwards  

An injured muscle may result in pain radiating through to the neck, back, and shoulder. However, if your pain continues to spread or even change locations, it may be neuropathic rather than muscular.  

Limited Range of Motion in the Upper Body 

Another common sign of a muscle strain in the chest or ribs is trouble with certain movements, especially overhead movements, such as reaching for something or holding something over your head or shoulder.  

Increased Pain When Coughing or Sneezing 

Just like breathing, you may experience additional pain when coughing, sneezing, or even laughing.  

Stabbing Sensation in the Chest 

A torn or strained muscle can feel like a stabbing sensation, and may change into a dull throb over time.  

While chest pain is commonly associated with much worse conditions, muscle strains are the single most common cause of acute or chronic chest pain. That doesn’t mean you should ignore your pain, especially if it doesn’t seem to go away, or if it seems to be getting worse 

People often ask us about specific symptoms to keep an eye out for when worrying about their chest pain. Important ones to look out for include dizziness, fever, a racing pulse, and fainting spells. Contact a doctor immediately if you’ve been experiencing any of these symptoms.  

Another common question is what movements to avoid when experiencing a chest strain. This depends on which muscle was injured, and how severe the injury is. Good advice is to usually try and avoid movements that are more painful than others. While you can’t avoid breathing, you should avoid overhead pressing or carrying motions for a while, as well as upper body twisting motions. Experiment to find comfortable positions to sleep in.  

Injury prevention after or before a chest strain is important. A good tip for patients who are worried about a recurring injury is to warm up properly. Dynamic stretches and exercising with a lighter weight before moving onto something heavier is always a good call.  

You may also be more prone to pulling a muscle while exercising or coughing after a severe chest cold. Take a few extra days off work or training, even once you start feeling better, to minimize the risk of an injury.  

Dealing with a chest muscle strain can be irritating, especially when every breath hurts. If your pain becomes more severe, or doesn’t seem to go away, contact us at PMIR or talk to your doctor about your chest muscle strain pain management options.  


Chest muscle strain symptoms can range from minor discomfort when coughing or laughing, to difficulty getting deep breaths. If your pain is keeping you from breathing properly or getting a good night’s sleep, even with over-the-counter painkillers, you may need to consider other chest muscle strain pain management options. Contact PMIR to find out more.  


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About Pain Management & Injury Relief

Pain Management and Injury Relief is a leading patient-centered pain clinic in Southern California. Our goal is to help you achieve long-lasting pain relief. By utilizing the latest medical technologies and equipment paired with innovative procedures and treatments, our team can help you improve your quality of life.

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