If you lift weights, you've probably done exercises for your latissimus dorsi muscles — or lats. Strengthening these muscles helps give you a wider upper back, or V-shaped torso. Latissimus dorsi muscle strains, while uncommon, usually result from traumatic events, in combination with damage to other structures in your shoulder or shoulder blade and can often be treated with conservative measures.
The Giant Latissimus Dorsi
The latissimus dorsi is a very large back muscle. It runs along the spine from the middle of your rib cage down to the top of your pelvis. Its tendon attaches to your humerus, or upper arm bone.
This muscle moves your arm backward into extension, brings your arm next to your body — a movement called adduction — and rotates your arm in toward your body, performing internal or medial rotation. When you grip a stationary bar overhead, this muscle raises your lower body as you pull with your arms, such as during a pullup or while climbing.
In addition to moving the arm and trunk, the latissimus dorsi is also active when you take a deep breath and when you cough or sneeze.
Mechanism of Latissimus Dorsi Strain
Lats muscle strains often occur from overuse or trauma, including a direct blow to the muscle or overstretching of the muscle fibers. The latissimus dorsi is often injured during sports activities. For example, this muscle is used during pitching activities — first as a shoulder stabilization during the cocking phase, then as a strong internal rotator during the acceleration phase of the movement.
Researchers have documented case studies of athletes who have injured their lats during sports activities. For example, a study published in 2013 by Clinics and Practice describes a rare injury to the latissimus dorsi during track and field. The patient sustained a tear in this muscle when taking off to run from a crouched position, pushing herself forward with her arms on the ground.
According to this article, other sports that can cause tears in the lats include bodybuilding, tennis, volleyball, golfing, gymnastics, rock climbing and steer wrestling. This injury can also occur during slam dunking in basketball. A study published in 2015 by Sports Health also discusses a lat tear that occurred while performing muscle-ups.
Symptoms of Lat Strain
If you've injured your lats while doing a specific exercise, you might identify the problem right away. Symptoms of a pulled muscle in the back can include sharp pain, bruising or redness from blood vessel damage, swelling, muscle spasms, difficulty moving or weakness. With a lat strain, you might notice pain while attempting to extend your arm straight back or when rotating it toward your trunk.
A tear in the latissimus tendon often causes an audible popping sound at the time of injury. With trauma, swelling is immediate and you might have a burning sensation in your armpit. With a full tear, you will also be completely unable to move your arm backward as soon as the injury occurs.
Testing the Latissimus Dorsi
With a severe strain, muscle fibers can tear. In this case, you would likely not be able to move your shoulder in the directions performed by the lats.
In addition to these symptoms, a lat strain can be diagnosed with a manual muscle test. This is often performed by a physical therapist or doctor when determining the extent of your injury. The patient lies on his stomach with the injured arm next to the body and lifted toward the ceiling. The patient then attempts to hold this position as the tester applies resistance in the opposite direction. With injury, the patient will have pain and might not be able to hold the arm up against the tester's pressure.
If a muscle or tendon tear is suspected, an MRI might be ordered to confirm the diagnosis and determine the extent of the injury.
Home Remedies for a Strain
Lat strain recovery time will vary based on the extent of your injury. According to Mayo Clinic, minor strains often improve within a week with standard RICE intervention — rest, ice, compression and elevation.
Resting doesn't mean stopping all exercise activity. In fact, movement helps increase blood flow to your muscles, which can help speed the healing process. However, exercises that increase pain in your lats should be avoided.
Ice can be applied to your strained latissimus dorsi for 15 to 20 minutes at a time, every few hours, for the first few days after injury. It might be difficult to reach the sore area on your back, so consider propping the ice on top of a pillow and lying down or leaning back onto it. Just be sure to have a layer of clothing or a towel between your skin and the ice to prevent burning.
Compress and Elevate
Due to its location, it will likely be difficult to apply compression to your lats. However, compression can help decrease swelling. If your injury is near the tendon at your shoulder, you might be able to wrap it with a compression bandage. Make sure you can slide one or two fingers between your skin and the wrap. Otherwise, it's too tight.
Elevate your injured arm above the level of your heart while resting to help gravity reduce swelling that might occur in the area.
Over-the-counter medications can help decrease pain and swelling after a lat strain, but check with your doctor to make sure these meds are safe for you.
Stretch Your Lats
Stretch your lats to help relieve the symptoms caused by a muscle strain. Wait a few days until you're able to move without sharp pain before you begin these exercises. Stretching a muscle that is acutely inflamed can cause it to become tighter.
Perform shoulder stretches twice a day to improve flexibility and range of motion. Stretch both sides, even if only one is painful. Tightness on one side of the body can contribute to problems on the opposite side.
HOW TO DO IT: Stand up straight and raise both arms overhead. Interlock your fingers and slowly lean your trunk to the side opposite your injured latissimus dorsi. Stop when you feel a pulling sensation along your back (but no pain). Hold for 20 to 30 seconds and repeat three times.
Say Your Prayers
HOW TO DO IT: Kneel with a chair in front of you. Bend both elbows and place them on the seat of the chair. Slowly lower your hips, bringing your butt down toward your heels. Stop when you feel a stretch in your back and hold for 20 to 30 seconds.
Roll it Out
Foam rolling your lats can help reduce tightness and improve flexibility after injury. To increase the amount of pressure applied, stack your legs on top of each other rather than bending the bottom leg.
HOW TO DO IT: Reach overhead and interlock your hands. Lie on your injured side with the foam roller under your armpit, perpendicular to your body. Bend your bottom leg and rest it on the ground. Keep your top leg straight and toes on the ground.
Press down through this foot and roll the top half of the side of your back along the roller. Complete 10 passes, or perform this activity for a set amount of time, such as 60 to 90 seconds. Roll the opposite, noninjured side as well.
Strengthen Your Back
Once your pain has resolved, perform lat-strengthening exercises that will allow you to resume your workouts. Strengthening can also help prevent future injury. Beginning exercises can be done at home with a resistance band. Start with banded rows.
HOW TO DO IT: Secure the middle of a resistance band to a firm object around waist height, such as a doorknob. Hold one end of the band in each hand and bend your elbows to 90 degrees. Initiate the movement by squeezing your shoulder blades together, then pull both elbows back as far as possible. Hold for two to three seconds, then relax.
Target Lats With Pulldowns
Straight arm pulldowns also strengthen your lat muscles.
HOW TO DO IT: Secure the band around shoulder height. Holding one end in each hand, straighten your elbows and pull your arms down until they reach your sides. Hold for two to three seconds, then slowly allow them to rise back into starting position.
Single Arm Adduction
Adduction exercises also target your lat muscles, one side at a time. Make this exercise harder by stepping out further to increase tension on the band.
HOW TO DO IT: Stand sideways with the band in your injured hand. Raise your arm out to the side, up to shoulder height. This is the starting position.
Pull your arm down to the side of your body. Hold for two or three seconds, then return to the starting position.
See a Doctor
See a doctor if your lat strain recovery time seems excessive or if you can't move your arm after your injury. This could indicate that more significant damage has occurred. If you can't move your arm, you might have a tendon tear, which requires timely surgical intervention.
Physical therapy can also aid in healing a lat strain, including treatment with additional interventions such as ultrasound, electrical stimulation and manual therapy. A physical therapist can mobilize your shoulder joint to improve flexibility more quickly and design an exercise program specific to the requirements of your daily life and sports participation.
- Sports Health: Traumatic Tear of the Latissimus Dorsi Myotendinous Junction
- Mayo Clinic: Muscle Strains: Diagnosis and Treatment
- New England Sport and Spine: Normalization of Muscle Function: Latissimus Dorsi Muscles
- Clinics and Practice: Acute Traumatic Tear of Latissimus Dorsi Muscle in an Elite Track Athlete
- PhysioAdvisor.com: Latissimus Dorsi Stretches
- PhysioAdvisor.com: Latissimus Dorsi Strengthening Exercises
- NCBI Bookshelf: Anatomy, Back, Latissimus Dorsi
- Mayo Clinic: Muscle Strains: Symptoms and Causes