How to Tell If Chest Pain Is Muscular and What to Do About It

Not all chest pains are necessarily symptoms of a heart attack. While painful, some may have simpler – and less serious – explanations.

Muscular pain in the chest can mimic serious conditions like a heart attack or lung problems. Even a broken rib can cause chest pain.

However, chest pain from a pulled muscle doesn’t necessarily warrant a trip to the emergency room. Learn how to tell if chest pain is muscular and when to call your doctor. The good news is that you may be able to take care of it on your own.

Pulled Chest Muscle: What You Should Know

If you have a sudden sharp pain in your chest, it may be from a strained or pulled muscle. These intercostal muscle strains account for 49% of reported chest pain cases. There are three layers of these muscles in your chest that help you breathe and stabilize the upper body.

Muscle strains can generally be organized into the following two categories:

Acute Strains

These strains happen immediately after direct trauma. For example, a chest wall strain from a fall or a car accident may be categorized as an acute strain.

Chronic Strains

Chronic strains, on the other hand, come from longer-term repetitive activities. So if your job requires repetitive tasks that utilize chest muscles, the resulting strain would be a chronic one. In addition, people who play sports like golf are also subject to chronic strains.

Strain Severity

If you see a doctor about your muscle strain, they may grade it based on severity:

  • Grade 1 – mild damage affecting less than 5% of the muscle fiber
  • Grade 2 – a little more damage accompanied by a loss of strength and mobility, but the affected muscle isn’t fully ruptured
  • Grade 3 – denotes a complete muscle rupture and sometimes requires surgery

In some cases, a doctor may order additional tests to rule out other issues like heart attack or bone fractures.


Do you know how to tell if chest pain is muscular? You may experience some of these symptoms:

  • dull pain (for a chronic strain)
  • sharp pain (for an acute pull)
  • muscle spasms
  • swelling
  • pain when breathing
  • difficulty when moving the strained area
  • bruising

If you want to know how to tell if chest pain is muscular, or simply rule out a heart attack, the following three tips should also help:

1. Pinpoint Chest Pain Area

The pain connected with a heart attack is generally diffused in the chest and dull. However, if your pain is sharp and coming from a specific location, it probably isn’t heart-related.

2. Wandering Chest Pains

If your chest pains show up in different areas on different days, it’s probably not a heart attack. Heart pain may travel into the jaw, arms, or between shoulder blades, but it won’t show up in different areas every day.

3. Take a Breath

Lastly, chest pain that gets worse when breathing may be due to a cracked rib or pericarditis, the swelling of the membrane around the heart.


Usually, a strained or pulled muscle can happen if you overuse the muscle. It’s the same for chest wall pain. Lifting a heavy object or sustaining a sports injury could both cause muscular chest pain.

Additionally, these activities may also trigger a muscle strain in your chest:

  • muscle fatigue
  • falling
  • reaching your arms above your head for long periods of time
  • skipping warm-ups before physical activities
  • twisting your body while lifting
  • contact injuries from car accidents and sports

You can also pull a muscle during normal activities like coughing. So if you’ve recently had bronchitis, it may cause muscles in your chest wall to strain.

Furthermore, anyone can get a chest muscle strain. Children are the least likely to experience them while older individuals are the most likely. Adults are more likely to receive this type of strain from a car accident or athletic activity than from bronchitis or some other problem.

When to Seek Medical Attention

If your pain happens suddenly, you should seek immediate medical attention, especially if it occurs while you’re engaged in strenuous activity or exercise. Furthermore, you should also go to the emergency room if your chest pain comes with any of the following symptoms:

  • sweating
  • fainting
  • racing pulse
  • dizziness
  • irritability
  • fever
  • difficulty breathing
  • sleepiness

In combination with chest pain, these symptoms may indicate that you’re dealing with a more serious issue like a heart attack.

Treatment Options

If you have a mild (Grade 1) muscle sprain, your first-line treatment options should be the so-called RICE method. This easy-to-remember acronym includes the following:


As soon as you notice pain, take a break from physical activity. You can start again approximately 48 hours after the injury, but stop if it starts to hurt again.


Apply a cold pack or ice directly to the affected area. Keep it on the sprained muscle for up to 20 minutes at a time and repeat up to 3 times per day.


If it’s feasible, you may want to consider wrapping an elastic bandage around the area. Be careful that the band is not wrapped too tightly. You want to compress it, but not cut off circulation.


Keep the chest area elevated by sitting in a recliner or propping up pillows. This is especially important at night.

Mild pulls and strains can take a few weeks for symptoms to subside. You can also take over-the-counter pain relievers to alleviate discomfort and inflammation.

Alternatively, if your pain is a result of chronic strain, you may want to speak with your doctor about physical therapy and corrective exercises.

If the chest pain doesn’t go away with home treatment, however, you may want to make an appointment to see your doctor. They can rule out other potential causes for your chest pain.

Final Thought

If you want to know how to tell if chest pain is muscular, simply take a look at your physical activities. Pulled or strained chest muscles typically occur shortly after strenuous exercise or sports.

However, if your chest pain is accompanied by other symptoms such as dizziness or fainting, it may not be muscular. And in those instances, it may be best to seek emergency attention.