Muscle pain can stop you in your tracks. But is it a cramp or a pulled muscle that's bothering you? Though the terms are often used interchangeably, they are not the same thing. Understanding the difference between a cramp and a pulled muscle can help you to treat the injury more effectively and get you back to peak performance.
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What is a Cramp?
A cramp in a muscle is caused by an involuntary spasm or contraction. It is usually sudden, can cause significant pain and can limit the use of the muscle for a short period of time.
A cramp will present as a knot or hard spot in the muscle. Cramps are usually caused by problems such as overworking a muscle, poor hydration, electrolyte imbalances, insufficient blood flow to the muscle or nerve compression.
While cramps are painful, they are usually temporary and are easy to treat at home. Stretching the muscle, staying hydrated and resting the muscle will generally resolve the problem quickly.
What is a Pulled Muscle?
A pulled muscle is actually a tear in the muscle tissue. This occurs when the muscle is strained to the point where the muscle is damaged. The more significant the strain, the more the muscle can be torn.
Pulled Muscle Causes
Pulled muscles are usually the result of not preparing the muscle for work through proper stretching, placing too much tension on the muscle or over-using the muscle. Soreness in the affected muscle is usually the first symptom. Using the muscle will be painful and difficult. In severe pulls, bruising may be present. The affected muscle will become very tender to the touch and some swelling may occur.
Pulled Muscle Treatment
Because the muscle tissue is actually damaged, it takes considerably longer for a pulled muscle to heal, often taking from four to six weeks for full recovery. Treat a pulled muscle with rest, a cold pack to reduce swelling within the first half hour of the injury occurring, and heat after that time to stimulate circulation. Anti-inflammatory medications can also help. As the healing process progresses, careful stretching and strengthening of the muscle can be helpful. In some severe cases, surgical repair may be necessary.