Few things are more annoying than a pulled muscle. Just when you're making gains in your fitness and flexibility, one wrong move can sideline you for a few weeks — or longer. While you can't turn back time, you can help reduce the discomfort and swelling, and speed up your recovery so you can get back in the game.
What Is a Pulled Muscle?
A pulled muscle, or muscle strain, occurs when any muscle is stretched past its point of natural elasticity. When this happens, the muscle fibers tear. The severity of the injury depends on how many muscle fibers tear and whether they separate altogether.
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Muscle strains are categorized as:
Grade I: a mild tear in which only a few muscle fibers are overstretched or torn. The muscle may be sore and tender, and there may be slight inflammation, but there is no loss of muscle strength.
Grade II: a moderate strain with more muscle fibers affected. The pain, tenderness and swelling are more severe; there is likely a loss of strength as well as some bruising.
Grade III: a severe strain in which the muscle rips in two or separates from its tendon. You may have heard a popping sound at the time of injury. There will be significant pain, swelling and bruising and complete loss of muscle function.
Read more: How to Treat a Shoulder Muscle Strain
When to See a Doctor
Whether you pull a muscle in your back or overstretch your hamstring, the treatment protocol is based on the grade of your strain and the associated symptoms. To a certain extent, you will need to use your own good judgment as to whether or not you need medical attention, but a few guidelines are:
- Most grade I strains can be treated at home without a doctor visit.
- Grade II and III strains should be treated by a doctor.
- Grade III strains typically require immediate medical attention.
Furthermore, you should call your doctor if you encounter more serious symptoms:
- You heard a pop in the muscle at the time of injury.
- Your pain, swelling and bruising are severe.
- Your muscle weakness is pronounced, and you are having trouble moving.
- Your muscle symptoms do not resolve within 48 hours.
- You have severe back pain that makes you unable to carry out your daily activities, or you have mild back pain that worsens over the next few days.
Home Treatment for Muscle Strains
If your muscle strain is mild, you can use the RICE treatment protocol. RICE stands for:
Ice. Apply an ice pack to the area for 20 minutes on the hour, or as often as possible. However, do not leave an ice pack on for more than 20 minutes at a time. Avoid placing the ice pack directly on the skin. Wrap it in a towel instead. You can also use a bag of frozen vegetables as an ice pack.
Compression. Wrap the affected area, such as your thigh or torso, in an elastic bandage. Wrap it snugly, but not so tight that it cuts off circulation.
Elevation. Elevate the pulled muscle with pillows while icing at or above the level of your heart.
RICE is designed to reduce swelling and pain and prevent further injury. It is important to begin performing this treatment as soon as possible after the injury and to continue for at least 48 hours.
Treatment for More Serious Strains
Your doctor will examine the site of your pulled muscle and ask you questions about the injury. Most importantly, he will want to know if you heard a popping sound, which indicates a complete tear. He may also ask you to perform some exercises to judge the extent of muscle weakness and loss of function.
If there is a question as to the severity of the injury, your doctor will order more tests including X-rays or magnetic resonance imaging (MRI). Based on the diagnosis, your doctor may refer you to a specialist for further treatment.
Serious tears require a surgical procedure. Whether or not you have surgery, you will need to follow a rehabilitation program that will include a period of rest followed by specific exercises and stretches to restore flexibility, mobility and strength. Your program may be carried out in a physical therapist's office or on your own at home.
Avoid Overstretched Muscles
You can prevent the discomfort and inconvenience of an overstretched muscle by following a few simple guidelines:
Warm up before your workout. Working out with cold muscles increases the risk of a strain. Do five to 10 minutes of light cardio as well as some specific warmup exercises for the muscles you will be working. For example, if you are training shoulders, do a few sets of arm circles.
Work on flexibility. Flexibility and mobility training is an important component of any strength-training program. Many strength-training exercises, although beneficial, cause the muscles to shorten, which can decrease flexibility and increase the risk of overstretching.
After your workout, do stretches for all your major muscle groups, especially the ones you just worked. For example, if you trained your upper body, do a few stretches for your chest, shoulders, arms and back. If you went for a long run, stretch your quads, hamstrings, glutes and calves. Hold each stretch for at least 30 seconds.
Overstretching can also cause a muscle strain if you go too far. Stay mindful and don't push yourself beyond your muscle's natural elasticity. When stretching, you may feel a mild sensation of discomfort, but you should never feel pain.
Hydrate. According to Trinity Orthopedics, dehydration increases the risk of orthopedic injuries including muscle strains. Drink at least 20 ounces of water within two hours of your workout; then drink 7 to 10 ounces of water every 10 to 20 minutes during your workout. Drink 8 ounces of water at the end of your activity and continue hydrating throughout the day and evening.
Is this an emergency? If you are experiencing serious medical symptoms, please see the National Library of Medicine’s list of signs you need emergency medical attention or call 911.