What is a muscle strain?
Muscle strains are painful injuries that can disrupt your usual routine. The pain and swelling from a strained muscle are uncomfortable. They also mean you can’t participate in your usual exercise regimens or engage in physical labor.
Most muscle strains will get better with proper care. It’s important to give the injury time to rest, then slowly resume normal activity. Stretching can be the first step in getting your muscles back to work after a strain.
Muscle strain is another term for a pulled muscle. They are one of the most common sports injuries, affecting anyone from recreational athletes to professional football players. Anybody can strain a muscle, but factors like age, a history of previous muscle injuries, lack of flexibility, and improper athletic form can put you at higher risk.
You get a muscle strain when you do something that causes tears in the muscle or the tendon that connects the muscle to your bones. You can strain any muscle in your body. These injuries are most common at the spots where tendons and muscles connect, such as hamstrings, lower back, shoulders, and neck.
Common causes of muscle strains include:
- Injuries from sports
- Pushing, pulling, or lifting a heavy object
- Exercise injuries or overusing muscles during exercise
Muscle strain symptoms
If you strain a muscle, you might feel an immediate sharp pain as it’s happening. The spot where the muscle fiber is torn will likely continue to hurt, and you may have difficulty moving the injured body part. You might have pain even when you have the injured muscle at rest.
You may have swelling and bruising at the injury location. Your range of motion in the muscle might be reduced, depending on how severe the tearing of the tissue is. In a very serious muscle strain, there might be complete tearing, and you may have very limited use of the muscle.
Treatment for muscle strains
Most muscle strains are not severe, and you can treat the symptoms at home. Many experts recommend icing the injury as soon as possible to reduce swelling in the area. Wrap ice or an ice pack in a towel and hold it to the injury for up to 20 minutes at a time. Do not place ice directly on your skin.
For the next three days, you can follow the "RICE" injury protocol:
- Rest: avoid using the muscle as much as possible
- Ice: apply ice for 20 minutes every hour
- Compression: use an elastic bandage to wrap the injured muscle
- Elevation: If possible, keep the strained muscle above the level of your heart to prevent more swelling
After three days, you can try applying heat to the muscle to help manage pain. You can use a heating pad or similar device. Make sure to keep a layer of fabric such as a towel between your skin and the heating element to prevent burns.
You can take over-the-counter pain medications if it is safe for you to do so. These can reduce pain and inflammation from injuries. Call your doctor if you are not sure which medicines are best for you.
Muscle strains and stretching
Once the swelling has gone down and the muscle doesn’t hurt as much, you can incorporate more movement into your recovery. Some experts recommend gentle stretching for muscles that are recovering from a strain. Be careful not to over-stretch and re-injure the healing muscle fibers.
If stretching is very painful, stop and continue to rest the muscle. You can try again when you aren’t feeling as much pain. If you have questions about when to start stretching an injured muscle or what types of experiences are appropriate, call your doctor or visit a physical therapist. They can help you plan a safe return to normal activity.
Most muscle strains will get better with time, but some injuries are severe enough that you need surgery. If you can’t move the injured area and the pain isn’t improving, you should call your doctor. You may need an operation to reattach the muscle or tendon.
To prevent strains in the future, experts suggest that you warm up your muscles well before exercise or other exertion. Stretch muscles before you work out and start slowly to give the muscle time to get flexible. Make sure you use proper form when lifting or carrying heavy objects. Regular stretching and exercise to keep muscles in good shape will also make them less prone to injury.
If you have questions about how to treat a muscle strain, call your doctor for assistance.
Health Solutions From Our Sponsors
Hospital for Special Surgery: "Muscle Strain: Causes, Symptoms, Treatment."
Penn Medicine: "Strains."
Piedmont Healthcare: "How to recover from a pulled muscle."
UPMC Sports Medicine: "Sports and Muscle Strains."