What is a muscle strain?
A strain, or pulled muscle, is an injury to your muscle or tendon. It occurs when these fibers are overstretched or torn. A muscle strain can occur because of an accident, misusing a muscle, or simply because a muscle is overworked.
Signs and symptoms of muscle strain
After straining a muscle, you may experience muscle spasms, weakness, and pain. Sometimes, the area surrounding the muscle will cramp and swell, and you'll struggle to move a muscle or won't be able to use it at all. Severe strains, like a partial or complete tear, are very painful.
Types of muscle strain
Doctors assess the severity of a strain based on the strength or range of motion you have after the injury. There are three grades of muscle strain:
- Grade I: A mild strain that damages less than 5% of individual muscle fibers
- Grade II: Significant loss of motion and strength. It involves more muscle fibers, but the muscle hasn’t ruptured. This type of strain takes around two months to heal
- Grade III: The muscle or tendon ruptures, causing swelling and severe pain. This level of injury may require surgery to reattach the damaged muscle or tendon
Causes of muscle strain
Muscles insert into bones and provide the force that helps you move. If you misuse a muscle or overload it, the resulting force is so great that it causes the tissue to tear. Tears happen in three specific places:
- In the myotendinous junction, which connects muscles and tendons
- At the tendon, where it attaches to the bone
- Inside the muscle
Injuries happen when you overload a muscle, which means it's contracting and elongating at the same time. Certain factors that predispose you to a muscle strain injury include:
- Previous injuries
- Weak muscles
- Older age
Strains and injuries often occur when you're starting a new exercise program or physical activity.
When to see the doctor for muscle strain
- You feel or hear your muscles pop
- You are in pain and your muscle is swollen or discolored
- You can't move the injured muscle
- You suffered an injury that isn't improving after 48 hours
- You hurt your back previously and your symptoms are the same or getting worse
- You have severe back pain
Back pain, especially if it gets worse, is a cause for concern. Pay attention and call your doctor if you notice the following symptoms:
- A burning sensation when you urinate
- Sudden tingling or weakness in one leg
- Numbness in your rectum or groin
- Problems controlling your bladder or bowels
Diagnosis for muscle strain
Most of the time, a doctor can diagnose a muscle strain with a physical exam. They will ask you to describe your symptoms and past medical history, then check for:
- Muscle tenderness
- Range of motion and signs of decreased movement
Treatments for muscle strain
The amount of time it takes to heal from a muscle strain depends on your injury's severity. Grade I strains heal within a few weeks. Grade II tears can take up to 3 months or longer. If you've had surgery from a Grade III strain, gaining normal muscle function will require months of rehabilitation.
If you suspect a muscle strain but didn't hear a "pop" that would require a visit to a healthcare provider, the RICE rule can help. Doctors suggest:
- Rest to avoid further injury
- Ice to reduce swelling
- Compression with an elastic bandage for support
- Elevation to allow fluid to drain away
Over-the-counter painkillers like acetaminophen and ibuprofen can relieve muscle pain and swelling. Your doctor may suggest you see an orthopedic specialist for further treatment if you have a severe strain. Trying to return to normal daily activity too soon may lead to another injury.
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Harvard Medical School: "Muscle Strain."
HSS: "Muscle Strain: "Causes, Symptoms, Treatment."
Mount Sinai: "Strains."
National Institute of Arthritis and Musculoskeletal and Skin Diseases: "Sprain vs. Strain."
The Journal of the American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons: "Muscle strain injury: diagnosis and treatment."