Pectoral muscles play a key role in throwing sports and are a primary source of power when you do pushups, bench presses or dumbbell flyes. In everyday life, your pecs help you push a heavy dresser across the floor or your toddler's stroller up a ramp. Continuous repetitive arm movements or a sudden extreme blow can damage the pecs, resulting in a condition known as pectoral tearing.
Pectorals and Pectoral Tearing
The pectoral major muscles spread fan-like across both sides of your chest. They're responsible for horizontal adduction, or movement of the upper arm across the chest toward your body's midline. A smaller muscle -- the pectoral minor -- lies underneath each pec major. The pec minor helps stabilize your shoulder.
Pectoral tearing -- also referred to as pectoral strain or a pulled pec -- is not uncommon among serious weightlifters. Older and unconditioned athletes and fitness buffs who don't warm up properly are also more susceptible. Acute pec tears can't be anticipated; they are the result of unexpected extreme force to the muscle. Chronic tears are the result of constant repetitive movement; they're caused by a gradual wearing-down of muscle tissue.
Pec tears can cause mild to severe pain, depending on the seriousness of the injury. In cases that involve only minor tearing, there might be a slight ache or feeling of tightness in the affected area. In more serious cases, pain can be extreme. Pec tears generally result in localized pain in the chest and front of the shoulder or shoulder pit, but pain can also radiate to the neck or upper arm. Pain tends to increase if the affected muscle is pressed firmly, activated by movement or stretched. Lifting an object overhead, pushing, retracting the shoulders, gripping a steering wheel or handlebars tightly, breathing deeply and moving the arm across the chest can all cause or increase pain in the affected muscle.
Additional symptoms of a torn pec include bruising, swelling, stiffness, muscle spasm and decreased shoulder range of motion. There can also be moderate to serious muscle weakness that makes it difficult or impossible to lift objects overhead or push objects away from the chest. In severe cases, there can be a visible indentation where the muscle was damaged.
Treatment and Prognosis
With appropriate care, minor to moderate pec tears tend to heal within a few weeks. In more severe cases, the recovery process can take many weeks to many months. Immediate treatment generally involves resting and immobilizing the affected muscle, applying ice and taking non-steroidal anti-inflammatory medication -- NSAIDs -- to manage pain. Once the initial pain subsides, it is generally possible to begin a progressive home-based exercise program to reduce stiffness, increase mobility and rebuild strength. Physical therapy -- including massage or ultrasound -- is sometimes warranted. Extreme cases can require surgery.