Is a Muscle Strain the Same as a Muscle Tear?

Reviewed on 2/22/2021

Is a muscle strain the same as a muscle tear?

A muscle strain is an injury that occurs when a muscle or a tendon is overstretched. A muscle tear is when a muscle or a tendon is overstretched and it tears. Is a muscle strain is not the same thing as a muscle tear.
A muscle strain is an injury that occurs when a muscle or a tendon is overstretched. A muscle tear is when a muscle or a tendon is overstretched and it tears. Is a muscle strain is not the same thing as a muscle tear.

Although a muscle strain is different from a muscle tear, many people get these injuries confused. A strain is an injury that involves a muscle or tendon being overstretched. Your doctor may also call the injury a pulled tendon or muscle pull. (A tendon is the cord of tissue that attaches a muscle to a bone.) 

Sometimes the injury is more severe, and one, a few, or all of the muscle fibers get torn. In this case, you have a muscle tear.

What are symptoms and signs of muscle strain vs. muscle tear

Symptoms of muscle strains and muscle tears can be very similar, requiring a doctor to diagnose exactly what the injury is.

Symptoms of a muscle strain

Symptoms of a muscle strain include:

Doctors classify strains into three grades based on severity: 

  • Grade 1: This is a mild strain that affects only a small number of fibers in the muscle. It doesn’t cause any decrease in strength. You may feel pain and tenderness a day after sustaining the injury. 
  • Grade 2: This is a moderate strain, often characterized by the tearing of nearly half of the muscle fibers. You will experience acute pain (pain that comes on quickly but doesn’t last long) that is accompanied by swelling and a minor decrease in muscle strength. 
  • Grade 3: This is the same thing as a muscle tear, where your muscle is completely ruptured. The affected muscle may be torn in two or in such a way that it separates from the tendon. You will experience a lot of pain and won't be able to use the muscle or affected joint.

Symptoms of a muscle tear

Symptoms of a muscle tear include:

  • Swelling
  • Bruising
  • Redness due to the injury
  • Pain or weakness when the muscle or joint is used
  • Inability to use the muscle

If you tear a muscle, you may hear a “pop” where the injury happened and notice a gap, dent, or other defects in the normal outline of the muscle.

What are causes of muscle strain vs. muscle tear

A muscle strain or tear can be the result of a single incident or long-term repetitive movements. Almost all types of athletic activity carry some risk of muscle strains, but these injuries tend to happen most often in contact sports such as football and in sports that require quick starts such as basketball and tennis. 

Other causes and risk factors include:

  • Lifting an object that is too heavy
  • Lifting improperly
  • Not warming up before or stretching after a workout
  • Overusing a muscle
  • Poor posture
  • Older age
  • Previous muscle injury
  • Lack of muscle strength
  • Fatigue
  • Decreased flexibility

How to diagnose muscle strain vs. muscle tear

Muscle strains and tears are diagnosed with a physical exam. Your doctor may want to check you further using imaging technology like an MRI. An X-ray will be required only if your doctor suspects that you may have sustained a fracture.

Treatments for muscle strain vs. muscle tear

Once a muscle strain or tear occurs, the muscle is vulnerable to reinjury. It is important to let the muscle heal properly and to follow preventive guidelines from your doctor. The most common method of treating a muscle strain is by applying a technique doctors call PRICE. It stands for:

  • Protection: Protect the affected area from further injury — for example, by using a support.
  • Rest: Avoid exercise and reduce your daily physical activity. Using crutches or a walking stick may help if you can't put weight on your ankle or knee. A sling may help if you've injured your shoulder
  • Ice: Apply an ice pack to the affected area for 15-20 minutes every two to three hours. 
  • Compression: Use elastic compression bandages during the day to limit swelling.
  • Elevation: Keep the injured body part raised above the level of your heart whenever possible. This may also help reduce swelling. 

Your doctor may also prescribe nonsteroidal, anti-inflammatory medications like ibuprofen or naproxen (Aleve) to help with the pain. You should, however, talk to your doctor concerning these drugs as they can be rough on your stomach.

Physiotherapy or techniques such as massage, manipulation, and exercises may be used to improve your range of motion, strengthen the surrounding muscles, and return the normal function of the injured area. 

A severe muscle tear may require surgery. Platelet-rich plasma (PRP) therapy may be able to help accelerate the regeneration of damaged muscle tissue.

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References
SOURCES:

American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons: "Muscle Strains in the Thigh."

Cape Cod Healthcare: "Sprain, strain or tear? What’s the difference?"

Harvard Health: "Muscle Strain."

Hospital for Special Surgery: "Muscle Strain: Causes, Symptoms, Treatment."

Marshfield Clinic Health System: "What happens when you tear a muscle?"

National Health Service: "Treatment: Sports injuries."

Piedmont Healthcare: "How to recover from a pulled muscle."

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