The main function of your quadriceps muscles is to extend the leg at the knee, a fairly ordinary event. But you also use them when you need to make a short stop or pick up speed in activities like football and soccer, and if you're a runner, you use them a lot, particularly when you run downhill.
As such, they are prone to strains, which occur when muscles are overstretched or subjected to excessive force. Recovery from a pulled quad muscle can take time, especially if the injury was severe. Being patient and waiting until your quad strain is completely healed will prevent re-injury.
The proper treatment to quickly reduce swelling and inflammation can allow your quad muscle to begin healing ASAP.
Quad Strains Explained
Your quadriceps muscles on the fronts of your thighs are a group of four muscles: the vastus medialis, vastus intermedius, vastus lateralis and rectus femoris. Your pulled quad muscle could involve one or more than one of those distinct muscles. The location of the pain in your quad may give you an idea as to which muscle has been affected.
Strains occur when excess pressure causes the muscle fibers to become stretched to the point of tearing. This often happens in sports activities when the quads contract forcefully to extend the leg during a kick or to accelerate during a sprint. When the demand for force is greater than the quads can accommodate, strains and other injuries occur.
Symptoms and Severity
Muscle strains are graded based on the symptoms and the severity of those symptoms. This helps you and your doctor determine what course of treatment to take, and it can provide a rough estimate as to pulled quad recovery time.
Grade I is a mild strain accompanied by a sharp pain at the time of injury, but not enough that the activity had to be stopped. There may be some soreness and slight swelling following the strain, but it does not impede movement and there is no loss of muscle function or strength
Grade II is a moderate strain with more pain at the time of injury, likely enough for the activity to have to be discontinued. There may be immediate swelling in the thigh area, or the swelling may appear later on. The pain will persist and some bruising may develop. There may also be some muscle weakness and loss of function.
Grade III is a severe strain accompanied by significant pain and potentially a popping sound or sensation at the time of injury. This indicates a complete tear. Significant swelling and bruising are expected, as well as complete loss of muscle function that inhibits walking or other movement. There may also be a visible or palpable dent in the quad muscle where the injury occurred.
Pulled Quad Recovery Time
Estimates for how quickly you can recover from a quad injury are only best guesses. If your injury was severe enough to require medical attention, your doctor has likely explained the recovery process to you and given you a rough approximation of recovery time.
According to Harvard Health Publishing, mild strains may heal completely in a couple of weeks. Moderate strains may take two to three months to heal. Severe strains, whether or not they require surgery, can take several months or more to heal.
Treating a Pulled Quad Muscle
Getting the right treatment for your strained muscle right away can help your prognosis. Mild strains can typically be treated at home, while grade II and III strains need medical attention in most cases. Regardless of the severity, the first 48 hours are crucial. Resting and reducing swelling and bruising enables the muscle to begin to heal itself.
Immediately after the injury and for at least two days following, or as your doctor advises, you can use the RICE treatment protocol to aid muscle recovery:
- Rest. Cease any strenuous or unnecessary activity and rest your leg as much as possible. This is crucial for reducing inflammation.
- Ice. Apply an ice pack to your quad muscle for 10 to 20 minutes every hour or as often as possible. Ice reduces swelling and can limit bruising.
- Compression. Wrap your thigh in an elastic bandage to help reduce swelling.
- Elevation. Raise your thigh to or above the level of your heart. This also helps reduce swelling and bruising.
Just because your muscle starts to feel better and the pain dissipates doesn't mean you should stop the treatment. Using RICE for at least 48 hours can significantly speed up recovery time.
Returning to Activity
The most important thing to hasten healing and prevent reinjury is that you avoid returning to your pre-injury level of activity too soon. If it's a mild strain and you don't have any pain, swelling or stiffness after seven to 10 days, you may gradually return to activity. Start out slowly and increase intensity only if you can do so without any negative effects.
If your strain was moderate to severe, you should do a course of rehabilitation exercises for your quad muscle before returning to your regular activities. You may be treated by a physical therapist who will devise a rehabilitation program for you. If not, you can do exercises to strengthen your quad, as well as to increase flexibility and mobility.
According to Massachusetts General Hospital Orthopedics, the first stage of exercises includes isometric contractions of the thigh muscle, as well as simply building mobility by practicing extending the leg at the knee. The next stage of exercises includes lying leg lifts and side-lying leg lifts, as well as calf raises and wall sits. You can also do gentle quad stretches, but only to the point that you feel a slight stretch. Never overstretch or stretch through pain.
You may continue to increase the challenge of the exercises as long as there is no pain. When you have regained your pre-injury strength and mobility, you can safely return to your normal activities, as long as your doctor gives you the green light.