Pulled Chest Muscle: Causes, Concerns, and Treatments for Relief

Got a sharp pain in your pectoral muscle? Discover the symptoms and causes of a pulled chest muscle and how to treat it effectively
By Luna
Pulled Chest Muscle: Causes, Concerns, and Treatments for Relief

"Is this a pulled chest muscle, or is this a heart attack?" That's what most people experiencing chest pain want to know -- fast. Don't worry. According to Harvard Medical School, only 20% of chest pain sufferers are diagnosed with a heart attack. That means that 80% of the time, it's something else, like a pulled chest muscle. A sharp pain in your pectoral muscle often occurs when it’s overstretched, causing small tears in the muscle fibers.

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Signs and symptoms of a pulled chest muscle

The pain experienced from a pulled chest muscle can be either sharp or dull and it can be more pronounced with deep inhales and exhales. Other signs of chest muscle strain include swelling, bruising, and muscle spasms. If your chest pain occurred during strenuous activity and it is accompanied by dizziness, nausea, sweating, or racing pulse, it could be a heart attack. Call 911 or go to the emergency room immediately. If you aren't sure, try putting your hands on your pectoral muscles (your chest cavity) and apply pressure. If you feel increased pain as a result, then it's more likely to be a muscle injury than a heart attack. 

Causes of a pulled chest muscle

Several different situations cause a pulled chest muscle. Those with weak chest muscles often injure themselves from heavy lifting, especially if the muscles aren't warmed up first. Females who experience breast pain may be surprised to discover that their discomfort is actually due to a pulled chest muscle. And anyone, male or female, who lifts too much weight or moves heavy furniture is at risk of injury. Other common causes of a chest muscle strain are contact sports and athletics that require forceful or repetitive motions. Tennis, golf, and rowing are prime examples.

Can you pull a muscle by coughing?

Outside of physical activities, a pulled chest muscle can easily occur from excessive, hard coughing. People who suffer from bronchitis or a bad cold can injure and inflame chest muscles from incessant, deep coughs.  

How to treat a pulled chest muscle

Most of the time, a pulled chest muscle is a minor injury. Depending on the severity, it can heal on its own within a few days or a few weeks. Get plenty of rest and avoid strenuous exercise. If there is swelling, try icing the chest area for at least 20 minutes at a time. Pain relievers, like ibuprofen or acetaminophen, can also help reduce muscle inflammation and pain. For chronic muscle strains, physical therapy can be very helpful. It aids in reducing pain and while restoring strength and motion in the pectoral muscles. Depending on the patient's needs, a physical therapist may utilize massage, special exercises, and stretches as treatments. 

How long can a muscle strain in the chest last?

This depends on the severity of the strain. If your strain is mild, expect it to resolve within a few days or weeks. Severe strains can take 2 months or longer to heal. If your chest pain sticks around for more than twelve weeks, it’s considered chronic and may be resulting from long-term activities and repetitive motions. Whether you’re experiencing acute or chronic pain, physical therapy can help decrease pain, strengthen the muscle, restore movement, and reduce potential long-term postural effects. If your pain does not subside through physical therapy, you may need to visit a physician or orthopedic surgeon. 

What does a pec strain feel like?

Everyone experiences pain differently. However, an acute pull will likely cause sudden, sharp pain in your chest, whereas a chronic strain is likely to be felt as an ongoing, dull ache. You may have difficulty using the chest muscles and experience sensations often described as throbbing, tightness, and tenderness. The pain typically starts at the armpit and spreads across your chest muscle. Because of the chest’s proximity to the lungs, a pec strain can also make breathing feel restricted and painful. You may notice pain when pressing on the sore muscle and even some pain at rest. 

Should you massage a pulled chest muscle?

This depends on the severity of the pull. Done with care, a chest massage can speed up the healing process for mild to moderate strains. A massage can improve blood flow to the pulled muscle and help to eliminate any build-up of waste products in the tissue. It’s important to note that while massage may play an important role in the process of healing, it is typically not a complete solution. Massage therapists are not qualified to diagnose any condition, and performing a massage on an injury that hasn’t been correctly identified can actually do more harm than good. 

What are common signs of a chest injury?


Common signs of a chest injury include pain in the chest that gets worse when laughing, coughing, or sneezing, tenderness, bruising, swelling, and redness. Others report a numbness or tingling sensation and discomfort when applying pressure to the area. Chest injuries that are associated with constricted breathing can be life-threatening, so it’s important to get help right away.


If you’re having trouble breathing, are feeling drowsy, confused, or clammy, or notice extreme thirst, call an ambulance immediately. Sharp, severe pain in the area of the chest injury could be a sign of a bruised or broken rib. If your pain is concerning, it’s best to visit a doctor for assessment. 

At-Home Physical Therapy With Luna

Understandably, many people are avoiding public places like hospitals and clinics to help prevent the spread of COVID-19. A good alternative for care is at-home physical therapy, like Luna. It offers a safer and easier way to jumpstart your healing process. Luna's therapists offer convenient in-person visits and televisits that fit your schedule perfectly. Plus, you'll receive one-on-one time from a board-certified physical therapist who is focused solely on you. 

Don't wait -- contact Luna today to get started and feel better fast.

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