What is a Quadriceps Strain?
The quadriceps, often shortened and referred to as the quads, are a group of muscles located on the front of the thigh. The quadriceps are actually four different muscles that work together with the hamstrings on the back of the thigh to straighten the knee and bend the leg.
Muscle strains happen when the muscle is pulled too far and stretches or tears. Skeletal muscles, like those that make up the quadriceps, are actually bundles of hundreds or thousands of fibers. These fibers have a limited range of motion before they begin to break.
The quadriceps are particularly prone to strains because they span different joints and are usually used for intense, high-speed activities. One particular muscle in the quadriceps is especially prone to strain because it helps with two different motions, straightening the knee and flexing the hip.
Muscle strains are typically described based on the severity of the injury.
- Grade I strains are relatively mild. Only a few muscle fibers break or tear, causing low levels of pain. Typically Grade I strains don’t affect muscle strength.
- Grade II strains are more serious, with more breakage of muscle fibers, some loss of muscle strength, and potential physical defects in the muscle.
- Grade III strains are severe breaks that cause loss of muscle strength, physical defects, and intense pain.
What Causes a Quadriceps Strain?
Quadriceps strains are typically caused by physical activity, although they can also occur if an object slams into the thigh. Athletes and runners are especially prone to quadriceps strains, although they can happen to anyone who is playing a sport, exercising in the gym, or simply stretching their legs.
Certain physical activities and exercises are more likely to cause a quadriceps strain. These activities include:
- kicking, such as kicking a soccer ball or football
- jumping, such as taking a shot in basketball
- running, either as a solo activity or while playing a sport
- extending the muscle too far, such as during a warmup stretch
Some factors make quadriceps strains more likely, and addressing them can help prevent injury. Muscle tightness, fatigue, and weakness may increase the chance of straining your quadriceps. Following a gradual training program, conditioning the quad muscles, taking time to recover after exercise, and warming up before a workout can help prevent quadriceps strains.
What Are the Symptoms of a Quadriceps Strain?
Many quadriceps strain symptoms occur immediately following the injury or within a few days afterwards. Symptoms may persist until the muscle heals.
Immediate symptoms. Several symptoms of a quadriceps strain happen at the time of injury. You may feel a pop in the muscle as the fibers break. Pain in the muscle usually comes on right after the strain and it may be immediately difficult to walk on or use the affected leg. If the strain is severe, you may also notice a dent or gap in your leg where the muscle tore.
Delayed symptoms. Within a few hours or days after the quadriceps is strained, the area around the strain may start to swell. It may also hurt to touch the area. Areas of black and blue bruising may appear around the injury, sometimes more than 24 hours after the strain.
How Are Quadriceps Strains Diagnosed?
Quadriceps strains can often be diagnosed by examining the injured area and describing the events leading up to the strain. Your doctor may also want to see how your leg bends and extends to confirm that the muscle is strained.
Additional tests aren’t necessary for the majority of quadriceps strains. However, some quadriceps strain tests that your doctor may want to do include X-rays to make sure that there aren’t any broken bones or an MRI to more closely examine the muscle.
How Long Does it Take for a Quadriceps Strain to Heal?
The time it takes for a quadriceps strain to heal depends on how severe the strain was. Quadriceps strain recovery typically takes a few months if the strain is severe. Very severe strains, such as Grade III quadriceps strains, may require corrective surgery to fix the muscle followed by physical therapy to regain muscle function.
Milder quadriceps strains do not require surgery. With appropriate care and rest, symptoms will improve within a few days. Full recovery from mild and moderate strains typically happens within a couple of months.
What to Do (And Not Do) If You Have a Strained Quad
Extreme treatments like surgery are only required for very severe quadriceps strains. Mild and moderate quadriceps strain treatment focuses on allowing the injured leg to rest and heal.
What to do if you have a strained quad. Mild and moderate quadriceps strain treatment usually follows the Rest, Ice, Compress, and Elevate protocol, commonly referred to as RICE. The RICE protocol for treating a muscle strain in the quadriceps suggests that you:
- Rest your injured leg. Don’t continue the activity that caused the strain or attempt any new activities that may further hurt your leg. Crutches may be necessary for keeping weight off of the hurt leg.
- Ice the area around the injury. Apply ice packs to the injured leg for 15–20 minutes at a time, with a half hour to an hour's break in between applications. Don’t apply ice directly to the leg, as that may cause ice burns.
- Compress the injured area with a bandage or wrap. Compression can help decrease blood flow to the area and prevent fluid buildup.
- Elevate your leg comfortably. Elevating your leg above your heart may also prevent fluid buildup and swelling around the injured muscle.
In addition to using the RICE protocol, consult with your doctor about additional medications. You may be prescribed a non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drug (NSAID) to help reduce swelling. Over-the-counter medications such as ibuprofen may help with pain management as the muscle heals.
After allowing the injured quad time to heal, it’s important to gradually strengthen and stretch the muscle. Consult with your doctor or a physical therapist about quadriceps strain exercises that will maximize your recovery without injuring the muscle again.
What not to do if you have a strained quad. After a quadriceps strain, it’s important to give the muscle time to heal without aggravating the injury further. A useful guide to preventing further injury is the No HARM protocol. The No HARM guidelines suggest:
- No Heat. Heat applied to the injury, in the form of a hot bath or heating pad, can increase swelling and bleeding.
- No Alcohol. Alcohol can cause more inflammation around the injury and may even stall the body’s healing process. Avoid alcohol for at least a few days after a quadriceps strain.
- No Running (or other exercise). Exercising on an injured quad muscle can aggravate the injury and prevent healing, or even cause the injury to become worse.
- No Massage. Massages can be helpful for sore muscles but they will not help if the muscle is strained. Massaging a quadriceps strain may irritate the muscle more and cause swelling.
Quadriceps Strains Can be Painful but Most Heal With Time and Rest
Quadriceps strains occur when one of the muscles in the front of the thigh stretches or breaks, often due to physical activities such as sports. A muscle strain in the quadriceps may cause pain, muscle weakness, and swelling and bruising around the area. Mild and moderate quadriceps strains typically heal within a couple of months, although it’s important to follow protocols like RICE to make sure that the injured muscle rests and heals properly.