How to Treat a Pulled Muscle When Coughing Goes Wrong

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Who would have thought that you can strain or pull a muscle from doing something so natural as coughing? It can be such a pain in the—wherever the pain is felt. Ouch!

A strain also called a “pulled muscle” can happen during an activity that requires the use of a muscle or muscle group.

According to the Summit Medical Group, lifting, twisting, stretching, sneezing, and coughing are some activities that can cause pulled muscle.

The abdominal muscle is most commonly affected if coughing is hard enough to stretch or tear it. However, muscles in other parts of the body can be affected by a pulled muscle.

What Causes Pulled Muscle From Coughing? 

Coughing is a repetitive, reflexive, and protective action taken by the body to clear the throat or airway of mucus, fluids, irritants, or allergens such as smoke, dust, mold, or pollen.

According to Livestrong, the diaphragm, abdominal, and intercostal muscles that run between the ribs contract compress, and relax during coughing.

Coughing puts immense strain on the muscles, particularly if it is a severe or a hacking cough.

According to ePainAssist, severe pressure on tightened or contracted muscles during this process can cause the muscle to pull or tear.

Frequent coughing due to a cold, flu, throat irritation, or respiratory infection, e.g., bronchitis or tuberculosis, increases the chance of pulling a muscle. But it can happen after one hard cough that stretches the muscle beyond its normal range.

In many cases, the affected muscle was already strained by some other earlier activity or trauma.

Symptoms of Pulled Muscle from Coughing 

You may be able to identify pulled muscle by the following symptoms.

  • Pain (may be sharp or dull)
  • Discomfort
  • Bruising
  • Soreness
  • Tenderness
  • Swelling
  • Muscle tightness
  • Difficulty breathing
  • Difficulty moving the affected area
  • Inflammation at the affected site

Pain or discomfort at the site where the muscle was pulled may increase or worsen when you breathe in deeply, twist, stretch, sneeze, cough or do any activity that requires the use of the muscle. The severity of the pain will depend on how severe muscle damage is.

Parts of the Body Affected by Pulled Muscle While Coughing 


The abdominal muscles are used when coughing and are likely to strain or tear. Pain in the belly from pulling the muscle usually increases when coughing, sneezing, bending, twisting, or exercising.


The intercostal or chest wall muscles run between the ribs and diaphragm and are used when inhaling and exhaling. When these muscles are pulled, breathing can become difficult.

Pain may be felt at the front of the chest or on the left or right side of the rib cage. Breathing in or doing activities that require the use of these muscles can worsen the pain.


According to WebMD, lower back muscles may also get pulled or strained due to severe coughing.

It occurs due to increased pressure on the spinal canal when coughing. Pain in the lower back may feel worse when bending and returning to an upright position.

Diagnosing Pulled Muscle 

Some of the symptoms of pulled muscle are similar to other, possibly serious, medical conditions. To avoid medical complications, you should see your doctor for an accurate diagnosis.

This is especially important since muscle tearing may damage small blood vessels, resulting in local bleeding or inflammation.

Internal muscle damage can only be detected using certain medical equipment used to view musculoskeletal parts of the body.

Your doctor will physically examine you in addition to considering your medical history. You should let your doctor know about any pre-existing medical condition.

Further investigations may be needed if the cause of the pulled muscle could not be determined or to rule out underlying health issues.

Lab tests, X-rays, or a CT or MRI scan may be necessary to determine if the pain and other symptoms you feel are indeed due to a pulled muscle.

These diagnostic methods offer a better chance to discover injury, trauma, infection, inflammation, or musculoskeletal issues that may be associated with your symptoms.

Grades of Muscle Strain and Recovery Time 

According to EmedicineHealth, when diagnosing muscle strain the doctor can determine whether the muscle is partially or completely torn.

The degree of the strain is graded from 1 to 3. Treatment type and healing time will depend on the severity of the strain. In extreme cases, surgery may be necessary.

Considering pulling a muscle from coughing may affect muscles that were already strained or suffered some type of trauma or injury, the damage to the muscle may range from mild to severe.

According to Healthline, muscle strains are graded according to their severity. A grade 1 or mild strain means less than 5 percent of the muscle fibers were damaged.

Grade 2 muscle strain is where there is more extensive damage but not a complete rupture.

Complete rupture of the muscle fibers indicates grade 3 level of damage. In this case, surgery may be required.

A mild strain typically heals within a few weeks. The more extensive the damage, the longer the healing time.

Treatment for Pulled Muscle from Coughing 

A muscle strain may heal on its own, especially if little or no damage was done to the muscle fibers.

There are several ways to treat pulled muscle in patients where the muscle fibers suffered more extensive damage.

Treatment will depend on what area of the body is affected, the cause, and severity of the pain or other symptoms.

Sometimes treating an underlying condition, e.g., a cold, is enough to reduce the symptoms and heal the muscle over time.

Treatment for pulled muscle from coughing includes treating the cough, using the RICE method, over-the-counter (OTC) painkillers, breathing exercises, or medical treatment with prescription medication or surgery.

Treat Cough

The more you cough, the more it will irritate the affected muscle. Taking OTC medication, such as cough syrup, may reduce the symptoms and eventually cure a cough.

Your doctor may recommend a certain type of cough treatment that may alleviate coughing faster. Once a cough goes away, the muscle should heal completely.

R.I.C.E Treatment

The R.I.C.E method is commonly used to treat pulled or strained muscle. According to ePainAssist, R.I.C.E can be used as first-line treatment in mild cases of a pulled muscle. While you wait to see the doctor, you can follow these steps:


Limit activities such as twisting, bending, sit-ups, or any strenuous activities that can aggravate or cause further muscle damage. Avoid such activities for a few weeks to allow the muscle to heal.

Ice Pack

Pulled muscle from coughing can be soothed with an ice pack or cold compress. It is a good way to reduce swelling and inflammation.

Wrap ice in a cloth or towel to make an ice pack and apply it to the affected area for about 20 minutes, 3 to 4 times a day.

To avoid skin blister, avoid applying ice directly to the skin.


Using a compression wrap, such as an elastic bandage, wrap the affected area to reduce swelling and inflammation.

Wrapping the belly can target a pulled muscle in the abdomen or lower back. Be careful not to wrap too tightly as this can interfere with blood circulation.

You may have trouble breathing if the chest is wrapped too tightly when treating pulled chest muscle.


To elevate the chest muscles, especially at night, sleep in a recliner or propped up by pillows.

This semi-upright position can also help alleviate symptoms of pulled abdominal muscle and promote healing.

Also avoid sleeping on the side of the chest, abdomen, or back that is affected to speed up recovery.

Breathing Exercises

Breathing exercises can be especially helpful in the case of intercostal or chest muscle strain.

Although deep breathing while having pain can be difficult, shallow breathing exercises may help prevent respiratory infections, such as pneumonia.

This can be done a few minutes every hour. Holding a pillow against the chest, breathe in and out slowly and gently. Repeat about 10 times.

Non-Prescription Medication

Before seeing a doctor, some patients may choose to use over-the-counter painkillers such as ibuprofen or acetaminophen to ease the pain.

If taken as directed, it may be effective in treating pain for the time being. Painkillers may not be as effective for severe muscle strain.

Patients are cautioned to avoid Non-Steroidal Anti-Inflammatory Drugs (NSAIDs) because of possible serious side effects.

For health safety reasons, it is recommended that patients speak to their doctor before taking any type of medication to treat pulled muscle.

Medical Treatment for Pulled Muscle from Coughing

Medical Treatment

If after using the RICE methods at home the pain or other symptoms continue, you should see your doctor.

Higher-strength painkillers, steroid injections, or corticosteroids may be prescribed to treat chronic pain in more severe cases of pulled muscle from coughing.


Although rare, surgery is used to treat pulled muscle if the muscle fibers are completely torn or ruptured. In such cases, surgery is aimed at repairing the damaged muscle.

Physical Therapy

After diagnosing you with a pulled muscle and treating you, your doctor may recommend physical therapy to reduce pain or discomfort.

This may involve exercises that can help strengthen abdominal, chest, or back muscles.

In this YouTube video, a physical therapist, Tara Pollack, explains how to treat abdominal muscle strain.

She gives some useful tips for healing and recovery, including the pillow technique for reducing pain when coughing.

What to Avoid During Recovery 

It is important to allow your muscle to completely heal before getting back into certain types of activities that involve putting excessive pressure on the muscle.

According to Healthline, trying to do too much prematurely can worsen muscle damage and cause complications.

Further, breathing could be affected by complications from chest muscle strain and put you at risk of lung infection.

Here are some things to avoid doing: 

  • Running
  • Strenuous exercise
  • Lifting heavy objects
  • Applying heat to a pulled muscle
  • Alcohol
  • Any type of massage

When to Seek Medical Care 

Sometimes, home care is not enough to relieve the pain and other symptoms of muscle strain from coughing.

You should seek medical attention right away in the following circumstances: 

  • Pain persists beyond a few days or gets worse
  • Difficulty breathing
  • Reduced movement due to pain
  • Pain is accompanied by swelling, soreness, inflammation
  • You develop a fever (this could be a sign of serious infection)

Preventing Pulled Muscle From Coughing 

Since coughing is an involuntary action taken by the body to clear the airway, it may not be possible to prevent a pulled muscle from coughing.

While you cannot stop yourself from coughing, especially when you have a severe cold, flu, or respiratory infection, you can prevent muscle injury or trauma caused by other activities. Sports and strenuous exercises are common causes of muscle injury.

A pulled muscle can take weeks or months to completely heal, depending on the severity of the muscle damage.

To avoid being ‘out of the game’ for a while, the following steps can help protect your muscles from strain or tear and reduce the risk of pulled muscle from coughing.


Muscle strain or tear can be prevented by doing daily stretch exercises. Daily stretches help strengthen muscles. Stretching before exercising reduces muscle stiffness while making the body more flexible.


Establishing a warm-up routine before you start to exercise can reduce muscle injury, particularly when engaging in strenuous exercise.

Strengthen Abdominal Muscles

According to WebMD, abdominal strains can be prevented by doing exercises that make abdominal muscles strong and flexible.

These exercises include abdominal stretches, ball lift, planks, side planks, and modified curls.

Consult Your Doctor

It is always wise to speak with your doctor before beginning any type of exercise program.

Your doctor may do a physical exam and other health checks to ensure it is safe for you to workout.

Practice Proper Lifting

Lift heavy objects correctly. To do this, keep your feet apart then adopt a squatting position. With knees and hips bent and upper back straight, slowly lift the object.

While pulled muscle from coughing is normal, it doesn’t have to be such a pain. Unless the muscle damage is severe, treatment of a home can help the muscle heal.

By taking preventative measures to maintain strong, flexible muscles, you should be able to minimize the risk of pulled muscle from coughing.