Can a Chest Muscle Strain Feel Like a Heart Attack?

Reviewed on 1/4/2021

What is a muscle strain in your chest?

When you have a chest muscle strain, your symptoms might seem to be signs of a heart attack. But there are additional symptoms that actually indicate a heart attack.
When you have a chest muscle strain, your symptoms might seem to be signs of a heart attack. But there are additional symptoms that actually indicate a heart attack.

A muscle strain in your chest can cause a sharp, sudden pain. This happens when your muscle is stretched or torn. Most chest pain comes from intercostal muscle strain. Your intercostal muscles are located between your ribs. They help control your breathing and stabilize your upper body.

When you have a chest muscle strain, the first thing you’ll feel is a sudden pain in your chest. You may also experience weakness, numbness, stiffness, and/or swelling. These might seem to be signs of a heart attack, but here are the additional symptoms that actually indicate a heart attack:

Seek immediate care if you experience these symptoms together with your chest pain.

Signs and symptoms of chest muscle strain

Chest muscle strain can cause sudden pain if your muscle is torn. A muscle strain in your chest can be acute. It may also gradually spread through your body as bleeding or swelling around the injured muscle occurs.

Common symptoms of a muscle strain in your chest include:

Pain

Your pain may be sharp from an acute pull in your muscle, or dull from a chronic strain. It may also be painful when you breathe or move your upper body.

Muscle spasms

You may experience uncontrollable and involuntary movements called muscle spasms due to a strain or tear. Muscle spasms may be painful or slightly irritating based on the severity and location of your strain.

Swelling

With any kind of tear or strain, you will see swelling in the injured area. This can help you find where your pain is coming from.

Bruising

Bruising may occur in the injured area. If you have a torn muscle, you will experience severe pain and bruising in the torn area. For a muscle strain in your chest, you may have light bruising.

Causes of chest muscle strain

Chest pain can be a symptom of many issues. From injury to illness, the other symptoms surrounding your chest pain may help you find the cause.

Certain actions, like lifting heavy objects or playing sports, can result in a strained chest muscle. Common causes for chest muscle strain include:

Physical activity

Certain movements can cause chest muscle strain. Activities that may cause strain include repetitive motions like:

  • Reaching your arms above your head for long periods of time
  • Lifting while twisting your body
  • Not warming up before strenuous activity
  • Muscle fatigue

Injury

Contact injuries or trauma to your chest can cause chest muscle strain. These injuries can cause bruising and swelling of the injured area. They can be from a multitude of things like sports, car accidents, or on the job injury.

Certain illness

If you are recovering from a cold or a respiratory infection like bronchitis, you could have a muscle strain in your chest from coughing. Your chest pain may be more painful when you are breathing or coughing in excess.

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When to see the doctor for chest muscle strain

Make an appointment to see your doctor if your chest pain and other symptoms persist, even with home treatment. If you ruled out a heart attack and other serious illnesses but have concerning symptoms that are getting increasingly worse, you should seek medical attention. Symptoms that might prompt you to check with your doctor include shortness of breath, fever, and heavy coughing.

Diagnosing chest muscle strain

Once you’ve made the decision to visit your doctor, they will first ensure that you are not having a heart attack. They will then ask about your medical history and conduct a physical examination to determine where your muscle strain is. If the tear or strain is concerning, the doctor may request a magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) or ultrasound scan.

The doctor may also request an electrocardiogram to test your heart’s electrical activity and/or a blood test to check for any abnormalities. It’s important for you to understand your chest pain. Be sure to describe what you are feeling to your doctor to help them determine the first steps of your treatment.

Treatments for chest muscle strain

Treating chest muscle strain can usually be handled at home. It’s important to control the swelling and limit the damage to the muscle. You should ice your injured area and restrict the use of your injured side. As part of your recovering, a doctor may suggest light exercise, stretching, and physical therapy. You can also manage your pain with the use of anti-inflammatory medications like ibuprofen.

If your doctor finds that your chest pain stems from another condition, they will recommend different treatments for you.

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References
Cleveland Clinic: "How to Cope with an Intercostal Muscle Strain."

Harvard Health Publishing: "Chest pain: a heart attack or something else?"

Journal of Physical Therapy Science: "Effect of a combined thoracic and backward lifting exercise on the thoracic kyphosis angle and intercostal muscle pain."

NHS Wales: "Chest Injury Advice."

Physio.co.uk: "Pectoralis major strain."

Sports Clinic NQ: "Pectoralis major strain."

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