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.

How do I know if it's a panic attack or heart attack?

When you feel your heart racing and start having pain in your chest, you may worry that you are having a heart attack. There are a lot of similarities in the way the body reacts when it comes to a panic attack vs. heart attack. However, the causes and outcomes of each condition are quite different.

It’s common for people to confuse the symptoms of a panic attack with those of a heart attack. That’s why it’s important to understand the distinctions so you can receive the correct care. 

What is a panic attack?

People having a panic attack often experience intense waves of fear washing over them. They may feel like they are trapped and unable to move. There is often no warning or obvious trigger when a panic attack strikes. It’s possible for a panic attack to occur whether you are awake or asleep. Panic attacks typically last anywhere from five to 30 minutes, usually peaking at 10 minutes.

What is a heart attack?

A heart attack, also referred to as a myocardial infarction, happens when a blockage stops blood from flowing to the heart, which keeps the heart from getting enough oxygen. As more time passes without that essential element, the heart muscle starts to die, which can eventually lead to death. 

What are the symptoms and signs of a panic attack vs. heart attack?

Because there are some similarities in the symptoms of a panic attack vs. heart attack, people often get them confused. Seek treatment from a medical professional if you suspect that your symptoms might be caused by a heart attack, even if it turns out to be a panic attack.

Symptoms of a panic attack

Some of the most common symptoms of a panic attack include:

  • Overwhelming feelings of fear or anxiety
  • Breathing problems, including shortness of breath and hyperventilation
  • Chest pains, discomfort, and tightness
  • Rapid heartbeat
  • Trembling or shaking
  • Nausea 
  • Upset stomach
  • Sweating
  • Dizziness
  • Numbness or tingling
  • Hot and cold flashes
  • Fear of dying or a lack of control

The symptoms usually peak within 10 minutes of the onset of the panic attack. Most people recover without showing any complications. However, people who develop frequent panic attacks may remain in a constant state of worry about having another one. These are symptoms of panic disorder.

Symptoms of a heart attack

Heart attacks do not strike everyone in the same way. They can come on with intensity or start gradually. It’s essential that you learn to understand what’s happening so that you quickly get proper treatment. People who are having a heart attack often show signs like:   

  • Feeling like something is squeezing your chest
  • Uncomfortable chest pressure
  • Chest fullness
  • Chest pain
  • Pain in places like your neck, arms, back, stomach, or jaw
  • Shortness of breath
  • Nausea
  • Breaking out in a cold sweat
  • Lightheadedness  

People can have different experiences when having a heart attack. Women are more likely to have symptoms like shortness of breath, jaw pain, and nausea. That may lead to a misdiagnosis of their condition. Also, women may mistake their heart attack symptoms for the fluacid reflux, or signs of aging

What are the causes of a panic attack vs. heart attack?

People who find themselves having constant panic attacks may have a panic disorder. While there is no consensus on what causes a panic attack, they can be brought on by certain factors, including:

Various factors can increase your risk of having a heart attack, like: 

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How to diagnose a panic attack vs. heart attack

To diagnose, doctors typically conduct a physical exam that includes checking your blood pressure, listening to your heart, and discussing your symptoms. They will want to confirm whether you are having a panic attack or a heart attack. They may also request additional blood tests.

When it comes to a potential heart attack, medical professionals typically have patients undergo various tests. To assess whether it’s truly a heart attack, doctors see if your episode caused heart damage and look for signs of coronary artery disease. Some of the tests you may need include: 

Your doctors will use your test results to determine a diagnosis and the next steps for treatment and prevention.

Treatments for a panic attack vs. heart attack

If your panic attacks may be the result of a panic disorder, your doctor may recommend that you start attending some form of therapy, such as cognitive behavioral therapy or exposure therapy. Also, they may recommend that you start taking medication to manage your anxiety and panic symptoms. These include antidepressants and anti-anxiety medications.

For heart attacks, doctors may inject a clot-dissolving agent to restore blood flow to the affected coronary artery. If that doesn’t work, they may resort to performing surgery to increase blood flow to your heart. 

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Medically Reviewed on 3/2/2022
References
Center for Disease Control: "Heart Attack."

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

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

HelpGuide.org: "Panic Attacks and Panic Disorder."

Heart.org: "Warning Signs of a Heart Attack."

Heart.org: "Heart Attack Symptoms in Women."

Heart.org: "Diagnosing a Heart Attack."

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

National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute: "Heart Attack."

NHS Wales: "Chest Injury Advice."

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

Sports Clinic NQ: "Pectoralis major strain."