Chest injuries -- no matter the cause -- typically hurt a lot. If you're wondering whether you have pulled muscles or bruised ribs, you may be able to tell based on how the injury occurred and the symptoms you are experiencing. However, pulled muscles and bruised ribs may also occur together. What's more, trauma to the chest can cause rib fractures or damage your internal organs, so it's wise to seek medical attention if you have sustained a chest injury. Diagnostic imaging may be required to determine the exact cause of your pain.
The way your injury occurred may help determine whether you have pulled muscles or bruised ribs. Several muscles attach to your ribs, allowing you to twist and bend forward and sideways. These muscles are particularly vulnerable to injury with sports that require throwing or other forceful arm movements along with trunk movement; such sports include bowling and ice hockey. In rare cases, pulled muscles may occur with particularly forceful sneezing and coughing or strenuous exercise. Pulled muscles typically cause instant pain over the affected area of your rib cage. You may also experience bruising in the same area.
Bruised ribs are caused by damage to the cartilage that holds your ribs together. This injury typically occurs with blunt trauma, such as seat belt resistance during a motor vehicle accident. However, bruised ribs may also occur with the same activities that cause pulled muscles, including exercise or coughing. As the name "bruised ribs" implies, blood vessels rupture and bruising occurs soon after this injury is sustained. Bruised ribs cause tenderness over the injured area and pain that increases with breathing and trunk movements.