Difference Between a Pulled Muscle & a Cramp

Both a pulled muscle and a muscle cramp can stop you in your tracks. A pulled muscle is a sustained injury, while a muscle cramp is a typically harmless event that goes away quickly. Understanding what causes them as well as how to prevent them can help you reach your fitness goals uninterrupted.

Don't return to strenuous exercise until a pulled muscle is completely healed. (Image: Bhakpong/iStock/GettyImages)

Tip

A muscle strain is an injury; a muscle cramp is sudden contraction of the muscle that goes away in minutes.

Leg Cramp vs. Pulled Muscle

Is it a leg cramp or a muscle tear? You can usually tell right away, just by the sensations. A muscle cramp is an intense muscle spasm. Your muscle seizes up and gets hard and tight. The pain can be mild to severe. You may be able to see visible twitching through the skin.

But within minutes, the pain and tightness subside. With a few stretches and light massage, the muscle usually returns to near normal and you can resume your activity, although you might have some residual soreness.

A pulled muscle, on the other hand, is an acute injury. It occurs when the muscle fibers become overstretched, by a little or a lot. In a severe strain, the muscle can tear in two or become separated from the ligament that attaches it to bone. The pain is mild to severe, there might be swelling and bruising, and you might feel muscle weakness or a complete loss of muscle function. You might also experience muscle spasms similar to muscle cramps.

Pulled muscles take longer to resolve. They need treatment to reduce the swelling and bruising, and they may even require surgery. Because strains can cause loss of strength and mobility, rehabilitation exercises are part of the recovery program.

What Causes Muscle Cramps?

The causes of muscle cramps are often unknown; however, they have been linked to:

  • Overexertion.
  • Overuse of muscles.
  • Muscle fatigue.
  • Long-duration exercise.
  • Dehydration.
  • Exercising or working outside in hot weather.
  • Staying in one position for a long time.

Some medical conditions may increase the risk of muscle cramps. These include:

Medications can also increase the risk of muscle cramps. Examples include diuretics, asthma medications, statins, as well as medications to treat Parkinson's, Alzheimer's, angina, high blood pressure and osteoporosis.

Other factors may also increase the risk of cramps. Older people are more likely to get muscle cramps than younger people because age-related muscle loss can result in the muscles being easily overtaxed. Obesity, or even just being overweight, increases stress on the muscles and can contribute to muscle cramps.

Causes of Pulled Muscles

Injury to the muscle fibers causes muscle strains. This often happens during exercise activities, when you're running, jumping, lifting something heavy or throwing something. It can also happen during daily activities. For example, if you reach for something on a high shelf and overextend your muscle's natural flexibility, you can sustain a muscle strain.

Although they can happen any time, they are more likely to occur when these conditions are present:

  • Muscle fatigue/overexertion.
  • Weak muscles.
  • Working out with cold muscles.
  • Having poor flexibility.
  • Using improper form while exercising.

Muscle strains can be chronic as well, but these are often referred to as overuse injuries. Chronic muscle strains occur due to repetitive movement in sports such as with rowing, tennis, golf and baseball. Poor posture can also cause them.

Treatment for Leg Cramps

At the first sign of a muscle cramp, stop whatever you're doing and stretch the affected muscle. If the cramp is in your calf muscle, extend your leg and reach down and pull the toes up toward your face. Hold the stretch until you feel the cramp begin to dissipate.

You can also massage the muscle gently with your fingers to help it relax. Applying a heating pad to the muscle will also encourage it to relax.

Prevent Muscle Cramps

Not all muscle cramps can be avoided; however, taking several steps can help reduce the risk:

  • Fix mineral deficiencies. If your doctor determines you are deficient in potassium, magnesium or calcium, he will instruct you to make dietary changes or take a supplement.
  • Stay hydrated. Drink plenty of water before, during and after physical activity, especially if you are exercising or working outside in hot weather.
  • Avoid sitting too long. If you are working at a desk or on a long flight, get up and walk around every so often.
  • Stretch. Before performing any exercise or other strenuous activity, stretch the muscles you will be using. Then stretch those muscles again afterward.

If you experience nocturnal leg cramps, stretching and/or doing some light cardio, such as riding an exercise bike, before bed may prevent them.

Treatment for Muscle Strains

Pulled muscle treatment depends on the severity of the injury. Mild strains can be treated at home with the RICE method, which includes:

  • Rest. Avoid activity that stresses the strained muscle.
  • Ice. Apply an ice pack for 10 to 20 minutes at a time on the hour or as often as possible.
  • Compression. Wrap the muscle in an elastic bandage snugly, but not too tight.
  • Elevation. Raise the injured muscle above or at the level of the heart.

The goal of RICE is to reduce swelling, blood pooling and pain. It's most effective if started immediately after the injury occurs and continued for at least 48 hours.

More serious pulls may require a visit to your doctor. If the pain is severe or long lasting and/or there is a lot of swelling and muscle weakness that affects your ability to move around, call your doctor. He will run some tests to assess the extent of the damage and determine whether your injury needs further medical treatment, immobilization, surgery or another type of treatment.

Prevent Pulled Muscles

The prevention strategy for a pulled muscle is similar in many ways to that for a muscle cramp. Specifically:

  • Avoid overexertion and fatigue.
  • Stay hydrated.
  • Warm up and stretch before exercising.
  • Stretch after exercising.

Additionally, you'll want to:

  • Strengthen weak muscle groups.
  • Increase the intensity of your exercise program gradually.
  • Avoid awkward or sudden movements.
  • Use proper lifting technique.
  • Practice good posture.

If you have sustained a pulled muscle, do not resume your previous level of activity before you are fully healed. Doing so increases your risk of another muscle pull in the future.

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