Even a mild muscle pull, tear or strain can cause enough pain to make you search for a soft spot on the couch. How long you occupy that comfy spot will depend on what muscle was injured and the grade of injury -- the higher your grade, the longer the rehabilitation period. Taking the right amount of time to heal and following guidelines for rehabilitation can speed your recovery process and may help prevent future injury.
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Grading the Injury
Mild muscle or tendon injuries typically cause immediate pain, slight swelling and soreness in the affected area that lasts for a few days. A second-degree strain causes some muscle damage or decreased strength, and symptoms can linger for several days to weeks. A third-degree strain results in loss of muscle strength and significant discomfort. These injuries may take several weeks to months to heal and often require formal physical therapy or surgical repair followed by months of rehabilitation.
In the Short-Term
According to the American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons, most muscle strains respond well to an initial regimen of rest, ice, compression and elevation, also known as the RICE protocol. For a mild strain, resting the involved muscle and applying ice packs several times daily should reduce swelling and discomfort, and get you back to your workout within a few days. However, the AAOS warns that even mild muscle pulls can take 10 days to three weeks to heal completely and suggests letting pain be your guide with regard to activity. It recommends a graduated return over several weeks to your previous exercise level and that you stop an activity immediately if you feel more than mild soreness in the affected area.
After the initial pain and swelling from a pulled muscle resolves, your doctor may recommend an exercise or physical therapy program designed to recondition your injured muscles and improve your overall fitness level. A hamstring pull, the most common muscle injury for runners, will require exercises that stretch and strengthen the hamstrings as well as the quadriceps, the muscles in the front of your thigh. Lower back strains, the most common muscle injury in general, respond well to rehab that strengthens the back, gluteal and abdominal muscles. The rehabilitation phase generally begins at a much lower level of intensity than you managed before the injury occurred. Over time, however, the goal is to return you to your previous, or an improved, level of fitness without discomfort, which can take weeks to months.
Tight and weak muscles are more prone to strains or tears, and the AAOS recommends daily stretching exercises and routine strengthening programs to help keep muscles flexible and strong. It also notes that muscle fatigue puts you at greater risk for injury or reinjury. Muscle fatigue occurs when you overwork your muscles chronically or return to a high level of exercise too quickly after an injury.