A muscle strain, or pulled muscle, occurs when your muscle is overstretched or torn. This usually occurs as a result of fatigue, overuse, or improper use of a muscle. Strains can happen in any muscle, but they’re most common in your lower back, neck, shoulder, and hamstring, which is the muscle behind your thigh.
These strains can cause pain and may limit movement within the affected muscle group. Mild-to-moderate strains can be successfully treated at home with ice, heat, and anti-inflammatory medications. Severe strains or tears may require medical treatment.
You’ll usually feel a muscle strain as it occurs. Symptoms include:
- sudden onset of pain
- limited range of movement
- bruising or discoloration
- a "knotted-up" feeling
- muscle spasms
In a mild strain, a torn muscle may feel slightly stiff but still flexible enough for use. A severe muscle strain is when the muscle is severely torn. This results in pain and very limited movement.
The symptoms of mild-to-moderate muscle strains usually go away within a few weeks. More severe strains may take months to heal.
An acute muscle strain is when your muscle tears suddenly and unexpectedly. Such tears can occur either from injuries or trauma. This can be due to:
- not warming up properly before physical activity
- poor flexibility
- poor conditioning
- overexertion and fatigue
There is a misconception that only rigorous exercises and workouts of high intensity cause muscle strains. According to Johns Hopkins Medicine, muscle strains can even occur from walking.
An acute strain can happen when you:
- slip or lose your footing
- throw something
- lift something heavy
- lift something while in you’re in an awkward position
Acute muscle strains are also more common in cold weather. This is because muscles are stiffer in lower temperatures. It’s important to take extra time to warm up in these conditions to prevent strains.
Chronic muscle strains are the result of repetitive movement. This can be due to:
- sports like rowing, tennis, golf, or baseball
- holding your back or neck in an awkward position for long periods of time, such as when you work at a desk
- poor posture
Most muscle strains can be successfully treated at home. According to the Mayo Clinic, minor muscle strains can be treated with rest, ice, compression, and elevation (RICE).
Avoid using your muscle for a few days, especially if movement causes an increase in pain. Too much rest can cause muscles to become weak, which can prolong the healing process. After two days, slowly begin using the affected muscle group, taking care not to overdo it.
Apply ice immediately after injuring your muscle. This will minimize swelling. Don’t put ice directly on your skin. Use an ice pack or wrap ice in a towel. Keep the ice on your muscle for about 20 minutes. Repeat every hour on the first day. For the next several days, apply ice every four hours.
To reduce swelling, wrap the affected area with an elastic bandage until swelling comes down. Be careful not to wrap the area too tightly, as this can reduce your blood circulation.
Whenever possible, keep the injured muscle raised above the level of your heart.
Other self-care methods include the following:
- Use an over-the-counter anti-inflammatory medication, such as ibuprofen (Advil). This will help keep pain and swelling down. Acetaminophen (Tylenol) can help with pain.
- After three days, apply heat to the muscle several times a day. This will help bring blood circulation to the area for healing.
- Don’t rest your muscle for too long. This can cause stiffness and weakness. Begin light stretching as soon as possible. Slowly increase your level of activity.
- When you return to normal activity, make sure to stretch and warm up before exercising. This will help increase blood flow to your muscles and decrease you risk of injury.
- You should make an effort to stay in shape. You’re less likely to suffer a strain if your muscles are strong and healthy.
If your muscle strain is severe, you may need medical attention. Physical therapy may also be recommended.
For mild-to-moderate strains, home treatment should be enough. Seek medical attention if any of the following happens:
- The pain doesn’t subside after a week.
- The injured area is numb.
- There’s blood coming from your injury.
- You can’t walk.
- You can’t move your arms or legs.
A physical examination and imaging tests, such as X-rays and MRI scans, can help your doctor determine the extent of your injury. Treatment may include anti-inflammatory medications and pain relievers to reduce pain and swelling, along with physical therapy to help strengthen the muscle and restore movement.
In very severe cases, surgery may be required to repair the muscle.
You can decrease your chances of straining a muscle if you take some basic precautions.
- Try not to sit in one position for too long. Take frequent breaks to move and change position. Use a chair that provides good support for your lower back or use a pillow for support. Try to keep your knees level with your hips.
- Maintain good posture when standing and sitting. If you spend a long time in one position, try to alternate putting one foot and then the other on a low footstool. This can help decrease stress on your back muscles.
- Lift objects carefully. Keep your back straight, bend at the knees, and always lift with your legs. Hold the weight close to your body. Don’t lift and twist at the same time.
- Take precautions to prevent falls, such as holding handrails on stairways, avoiding slippery surfaces, and keeping your floors uncluttered.
- Lose excess weight.
- Wear shoes that fit properly.
Regular exercise can keep your muscles healthy and strong, but proper techniques are also crucial in preventing muscle strains. Always stretch and warm up before engaging in physical activity. Similarly, take the time to stretch after each workout or session of physical activity to prevent muscle stiffness. If you are new to exercising, start slowly and build up your activity a little at a time.
It’s vital that you understand your body’s limitations. If something doesn’t feel right during an activity, stop immediately.
Recovery time depends on the severity of the injury. For a mild strain, you may be able to return to normal activities within three to six weeks with basic home care. For more severe strains, recovery can take several months. In severe cases, surgical repair and physical therapy may be necessary.
With proper treatment, most people recover completely. You can improve your chances of recovery by taking steps to avoid getting the same injury again. Follow your doctor’s instructions after surgery, and don’t engage in strenuous physical activity until your muscles have healed.