Chest muscle strains can occur from various activities. Learn when it’s time to see a pain management doctor, and treatment options.
Difficulty breathing. Sharp pain. A stabbing feeling. These are just some of the symptoms of a potential heart attack – and they mirror those of a sudden and painful muscle strain. How can you tell the difference? And how do you treat the latter?
For the average adult, muscle tissue accounts for the majority of weight in the human body. Skeletal muscles, which are responsible for movement, are structured as a bundle of tightly packed fibers with an origin and an insertion on a respective bone or joint, as well as connected tendons. All muscles, including those involved in your digestion and heartbeat, have one primary function: contract and extend.
Of course, things do get a little more complicated than that. But the bulk of what a skeletal muscle does can be simplified as a shortening or lengthening of the muscle belly, or the meat of the muscle.
However, there is a limit to how much a muscle can contract and how much it can stretch. When you overload a muscle to the point of tearing, the fibers break apart and cause bruising (internal bleeding) and pain. This is called a muscle strain.
How Muscle Strains Occur
Strains occur in muscles, including their attaching tendons, while sprains occur in ligaments or joint capsules. But both generally mean the same thing: overstretching or tearing in a muscle, tendon, ligament, or joint.
Contrary to popular belief, you don’t need excessive external resistance to tear a muscle. Susceptibility to an injury can be increased by several factors, including sedentary living, low strength, previous injuries, and genetics.
You can tear a muscle gearing up for a sprint without warming up or by getting up and turning too fast. You can even tear a muscle by moving your neck too quickly. Like many other parts of the body, muscles are highly adaptive and will perform in response to the activities you do daily.
Repetitive loading of any given muscle group will increase that muscle group’s resistance to tears, build more muscle tissue, and cause neural adaptations by allowing for the recruitment of more type I and II muscle fibers by your motor neurons, all while protecting from joint and ligament injuries.
But taking it too far – or doing nothing at all – can cause a painful tear or strain when a muscle is put under an inappropriate or excessive load, whether purely through gravity and awkward leverages or a heavy weight. Muscle strains can also result from repetition leading to injury – when the muscle is continuously exposed to heavy loads without appropriate recovery. It is more likely to tear. These represent the differences between an acute muscle strain and a chronic muscle strain.
It’s difficult to pinpoint all the ways in which a chest muscle strain can occur. It’s not just a heavy bench press or a big stretch. Chest and rib muscle strains commonly occur after:
- Contact sports
- Car accidents
- Physical altercations
- A forced swinging motion (tennis, golf, badminton, rowing, swimming, etc.)
- Poor physical conditioning
- A fall
- And more
Identifying a Chest Muscle Strain
Chest muscle strains can occur in several muscles on the torso. The chest itself is home to a large muscle group called the pectoral muscles, but nearly half of all chest muscle strains occur in a major surrounding muscle group, the intercostal muscles (rib muscles).
Tears in pectoral and intercostal muscles can feel like a sharp or stabbing pain, followed by swelling, bruising, spasms (or involuntary contractions), and pain while breathing.
A muscle strain in the chest or rib area can be differentiated from something like a heart attack through a number of easy-to-remember rules:
- Heart attacks usually have pain or pressure that radiates out into the neck, back, jaw, arms, or upper stomach. Heart attacks can last much longer than acute pain and cramps from a muscle strain.
- Other symptoms to watch out for include shortness of breath and dizziness.
Furthermore, it might be calming to know that less than 6 percent of emergency room visits prompted by chest pain were related to a life-threatening cardiac issue. More often than not, chest pain can mean a muscle tear, shingles, fibromyalgia, chest inflammation, asthma, or pneumonia.
If you’re unsure what’s happening and the pain isn’t getting better, you should call a doctor or get to an emergency room. It’s always better to be safe than sorry, especially if you’re in a lot of pain.
Treating Muscle Strains Yourself
First things first, if you believe you’ve strained your muscle, it’s still a good idea to visit a doctor. This is because muscle strains can range through different types, from minor tears in a muscle belly to a total tear, in which case muscle can tear off of the bone, tendon, or rest of the muscle. These are worst-case scenarios and require surgery for reattachment and long-term rehabilitation.
Most muscle tears don’t require surgery, thankfully. The most a doctor would recommend is rest and ice. Depending on the location of the tear, a doctor may also recommend compression. Elevation is key, too, especially with injuries to the hands, feet, arms, or legs. Together, these makeup R.I.C.E.
Over-the-counter pain medication may or may not be recommended depending on the severity of the bruising, as many OTC pain killers can increase bleeding by thinning the blood.
Avoid any kind of self-massage or physical therapy in severe strains unless previously discussed with a doctor or physical therapist. Note, however, that stretches, massages and strengthening exercises are key to long-term pain management and rehabilitation. You want a strained muscle to become stronger to avoid a repeated injury. Your doctor or PT may be able to recommend various exercises you can do at home to relieve pain and improve mobility.
Ultimately, a strained chest muscle can range from “not that serious” to “pretty debilitating.” Injured intercostal muscles can make it difficult to breathe for days on end. While you might not work out for a while after a major injury to the chest, you will still feel that pain whenever you move your arms, bring your hands together, or even pick something up in front of you. Be sure to contact your doctor and talk about pain management if your strain requires long-term rehabilitation.