Muscle Strain Overview
Muscle strain, muscle pull, or even a muscle tear means that there is damage to a muscle or the tendons attached to it. This type of injury can happen if you put too much pressure on muscles, whether you're doing normal daily activities, lifting something heavy, working out, or playing a sport. It doesn't only happen to athletes.
Muscle damage can take different forms. You might have torn some or all of the muscle fibers and the tendons attached to that muscle. And when a muscle tears, it can damage small blood vessels, causing local bleeding, or bruising, and pain caused by irritation of the nerve endings in the area.
Muscle Strain Symptoms
Symptoms of muscle strain include:
- Swelling, bruising, or redness due to the injury
- Pain at rest
- Pain when the specific muscle or the joint in relation to that muscle is used
- Weakness of the muscle or tendons
- Inability to use the muscle at all
Grades and Severity of Muscle Strains
While all muscle strains hurt, some are more severe than others. Here's a quick look at the grades of muscle strains:
Grade 1 muscle strain: This is a mild strain with minimal impact on strength or motion.
Grade 2 muscle strain: While this is more severe than a grade 1 muscle strain, the muscle hasn't completely torn. Still, you'll have lost strength and motion in that muscle and it may take 2-3 months to recover.
Grade 3 muscle strain: The muscle or tendon has completely torn. You might need surgery.
When to Seek Medical Care
Call your doctor if you have a significant muscle injury (or if home remedies bring no relief in 24 hours).
Seek emergency treatment if you hear a "popping" sound with the injury, cannot walk, or there is significant swelling, pain, fever, or open cuts.
Exams and Tests
The doctor will ask you about what happened and about your medical history. They'll also give you a physical exam. They will check on whether the muscle is partially or completely torn, which can involve a much longer healing process, possible surgery, and a more complicated recovery.
You may not need X-rays or lab tests unless trauma was involved or there are signs of infection.
Muscle Strain Treatment Self-Care at Home
Apply ice packs to the area soon after the injury and keep the strained muscle in a stretched position. This will help manage the amount of swelling or local bleeding into the muscle (from torn blood vessels).You can use heat when the swelling has lessened. Using heat earlier than that can increase swelling and pain.
Never apply ice or heat to bare skin. Always use a protective covering such as a towel between the ice or heat and the skin.
Pain relievers. Take nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) such as naproxen or ibuprofen to reduce pain and improve your ability to move around. Do not take NSAIDs if you have kidney disease or a history of gastrointestinal bleeding or if you are also taking a blood thinner (such as Coumadin) without first talking with your doctor. In that case, it is safer to take acetaminophen, which helps lessen pain but does not reduce inflammation.
Protection, rest, ice, compression, and elevation (known as the PRICE formula) can help the affected muscle. Here's how:
- Remove all constrictive clothing and jewelry in the area of the muscle strain.
- Protect the strained muscle from further injury.
- Rest the strained muscle. Avoid the activities that caused the strain and other activities that are painful.
- Ice the muscle area (20 minutes every hour while awake). Ice is a very effective anti-inflammatory and pain reliever. Small ice packs, such as packages of frozen vegetables or water frozen in foam coffee cups, applied to the area may help decrease inflammation.
- Compression can be gently applied with an elastic bandage, which can both provide support and decrease swelling. Do not wrap tightly.
- Elevate the injured area to lessen swelling. Prop up a strained leg muscle while sitting, for example.
- Activities that increase muscle pain or work the affected body part are not recommended until the pain has eased up.
Assuming that you don't have a severe muscle injury that needs surgery, medical treatment is similar to the treatment at home. But a doctor can give you valuable advice, such as:
- Tell you the extent of muscle and tendon injury
- Let you know if you need crutches or a brace to help healing
- Whether you need to restrict your activity or take days off work
- Determine whether rehabilitation exercises or physical therapy are needed to help you recover and prevent reinjury.
Next Steps Prevention
- Help avoid injury by stretching daily.
- Start an exercise program in consultation with your doctor.
- Stretch after you exercise.
- Establish a warm-up routine prior to strenuous exercise, such as gently running in place for a couple of minutes.
In most cases, with proper treatment, most people recover completely from muscle strain. More complicated cases should be handled by a doctor.