Overexerting your body can lead to numerous injuries. A muscle strain, or pulled muscle, occurs when your muscle is overstretched or torn. This can be minor, such as soreness after an intense workout, or so severe that it needs surgical repair.
Muscle strain is a very common injury. Most people who participate in sports have experienced it at some point in their lives. Poor conditioning, fatigue, and an improper warm-up can lead to a muscle strain.
When muscle strain occurs, people often report a popping or snapping sensation. This is the feeling of the muscle tissue being stretched until it snaps. This is often a very painful experience. Strains most commonly occur in the lower back, neck, shoulder, and the hamstring muscle, which is located in the back of the thigh.
There are several different ways to treat muscle sprains. The extent of the treatment depends on the extent of the strain.
Treating a muscle strain alleviates pain and inflammation, reduces the risk of further injury, and helps you regain full use of your body. It also gives your body a chance to rest and heal properly.
Without proper treatment, you may experience recurring injuries or pain and weakness in the muscle during everyday use. It can be especially painful during athletic activities.
Surgery is necessary to repair a torn muscle that cannot be fixed through other methods. Surgery is typically the last resort for muscle injuries.
Most muscle strains do not require professional medical treatment.
According to the American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons (AAOS), the most common and effective treatment for muscle strains is the RICE method. The individual letters of “RICE” stand for:
- Rest: Give yourself an adequate amount of time to heal, avoiding physical activity, to help strained muscles and other injuries.
- Ice: Use cold packs—with a barrier between them and your skin—for 20 minutes at a time four to eight times a day.
- Compression: Keep steady, gentle pressure on the muscle to prevent swelling and inflammation, which delay healing. Wrapping an elastic bandage around the affected muscle is best.
- Elevation: Keep the injury above your heart to reduce swelling. Use pillows or other devices to raise an affected limb while you rest (AAOS, 2007)
Anti-inflammatory pain relievers such as ibuprofen (Advil) or aspirin can help reduce swelling and pain. Physical therapy may also be needed.
Surgery is the typical treatment for torn or ruptured muscles. You and your doctor will discuss all surgical or nonsurgical options available to repair your muscle.
There are very few risks of treating a muscle strain. However, there is a small chance of taking too many painkillers or leaving an ice pack on the skin for too long. Always follow dosage instructions on all prescription or over-the-counter medications.
Use a barrier such as a towel between an ice pack and your skin. Allow your skin to warm up in between icing intervals.
Surgery to repair a strain carries certain risks. Some include:
- blood clots
- pain and stiffness
- slowed healing time
Properly treating muscle strain requires the right supplies and a comfortable place to rest. You may need the following supplies:
- plastic bag
- compression bandage, such as an ACE bandage
Depending on the muscle affected, assistive devices may be needed to help stabilize the muscle, especially if it affects one of the limbs. This could include crutches, slings, braces, or a wheelchair. With proper treatment, all of these devices are temporary.
The last thing you want to do is reinjure a strained muscle. There are several ways you can prevent a muscle strain from recurring, such as:
- allowing for proper time to heal from an injury
- stretching your muscles daily
- cross-training for sports by weightlifting or choosing another activity to strengthen your muscles
- warming up prior to exercise or intense activity
- eating foods high in potassium (ex. bananas and avocados) prior to exercise to prevent muscle fatigue
- properly hydrating during exercise
Talk to your doctor about what steps you can take to avoid muscle strains, if you experience them regularly.
If a muscle strain or tear requires surgery, medication or physical therapy to strengthen affected muscle groups may be necessary after your procedure. Your doctor will provide specific follow-up instructions based on the type and severity of your injury.