How to Tell If You Pulled a Muscle

Man doing exercise in gym, close-up
How to Tell If You Pulled a Muscle (Image: Chris Clinton/Photodisc/Getty Images)

You don't have to be a body builder to suffer from a pulled muscle; even normal daily activities put your muscles at risk for overuse or excess pressure. Pulled muscles, or muscle strains, can cause significant discomfort but are usually not serious. Treatment for most strains usually includes a combination of ice, rest and over-the-counter medications.

Physical Symptoms

A muscle that has been pulled may feel slightly sore with a dull, aching kind of pain. Pulled muscles can also feel more acutely painful, especially when the affected muscle is being used. Some pulled muscles are also sore or tender to the touch. The joints near the injured muscle may also be sore. Pressure and tension usually cause the pain to intensify.

Visual Inspection

Minor muscle strains may not cause any visual symptoms, but moderate to severe strains can cause symptoms that you can see. The area near the pulled muscles is often slightly swollen or red. If your strain was significant enough to tear the fibers and cause bleeding around the muscle, you may see a bruise near the injury site that worsens with time.

Contextual Considerations

Muscle pulls occur under two different contexts. The first is an acute muscle strain that occurs during a physical activity. These kinds of strains cause immediate pain that often feels like shooting or burning at first, and then fades into a more general soreness. In severe cases, you may hear a snapping or popping sound when the injury occurs. The second type of strain is the result of prolonged muscular stress. These kinds of strains typically cause pain that sets in gradually, and you may only be aware of them during periods of rest.

Other Possibilities

A muscle strain is different from a sprain, which is damage to ligaments, rather than muscle tissue. Sprains are more common around joints like the wrists and ankles. Muscle cramps cause a similar kind of pain, but are related to an uncontrollable contraction of your muscles, and usually once the cramp subsides the pain dissipates as well. Generalized muscle soreness that is not connected to any specific activity or injury may be related to a number of other medical conditions. If you are experiencing other symptoms, like fever, nausea or extreme fatigue, you should see a doctor to identify the cause.

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