Whether you're a casual athlete, a fitness fanatic, or anyone in between, you’ve probably experienced a strained or “pulled” muscle. And while it might not be a frequent injury, it is one that can lead to serious pain and an inability to do some of the more normal activities you partake in during the week.
These strains can be painful and stressful when you don't know how to treat them. However, before we can learn how to treat muscle strains, we have to understand what a muscle strain is and how to recognize it.
What is a strained muscle?
A muscle strain is an injury to the muscle or the tendon that attaches muscle to a bone. This type of injury occurs when the muscle is partially or completely torn within the tissue due to overuse or improper use of a muscle. A strained muscle most commonly occurs in the lower back, neck, shoulder, and hamstring.
It is important to know the difference between a muscle strain and a muscle sprain. A muscle sprain refers to an injury occurring to the tissue that connects bones to other bones and stabilizes joints. Another major indication between a muscle strain and sprain is that muscle strain symptoms are less severe and can usually be treated at home.
Symptoms of muscle strains
Symptoms of muscle strains vary depending on the location of the injury. Symptoms from a muscle strain in the back might appear different from a strain in the leg or a muscle strain in the neck. Generally, muscle strain symptoms include:
Soreness and swelling
Bruising and discoloration
Difficulty moving the muscle and loss of strength
Sudden onset of pain accompanied by a “knotted up” sensation
How do muscle strains occur?
You might think that muscle strains and injuries can only happen to those participating in high-intensity workouts, but this isn't the case. Muscle strains can occur in low-intensity workouts like walking or gardening – it can even happen to someone who works at a desk all day. Everyone is susceptible to muscle strains, which is why it's important to learn how to treat and prevent them.
Strains caused by sports and training
Sports are the cause of 3.5 million injuries per year, according to Johns Hopkins Medicine,
so it's no surprise that muscle sprains are another common injury for athletes. Poor conditioning can lead to a nasty muscle sprain when exercising, so you should do everything you can to ensure that it is being done correctly and safely. If an exercise doesn't feel right, stop and consider asking a coach or trainer for help. Learning how to properly perform an exercise can be the difference between preventing a severe muscle strain, as well as an array of other injuries.
Strains caused by physical activity
Muscle strains happen in all types of physical activity; not just in high-intensity sports. A common cause of muscle strain is improper or lack of warming up. Muscles need to be warmed up and cooled down. So, before running, swimming laps, biking, or any other physical activity, be sure to warm up your muscles and start your exercise off right! Follow up your exercise with a cool down to get oxygen and blood flow back to those highly worked areas.
Strains caused by daily activities
Muscle strains don't just occur in sports and physical activities. These strains can happen while doing things that are common in everyday life. Be mindful of repetitive motions and intense physical movements, such as potting seeds in a garden and carrying heavy groceries from the car to the kitchen. If you feel you are getting sore, take a break and relax the muscle. While these tasks might seem harmless, over-exertion and fatigue of a muscle through repetitive conditioning can turn into a severe muscle strain.
Treatments for muscle strains
Treatments for muscle sprains vary depending on where the sprain is located and its severity. Generally speaking, muscle strains can be treated with rest, ice, compression, and elevation (RICE). When it comes to muscle strain treatment, keep RICE in mind to treat your injury properly and efficiently.
Avoid using the muscle and give it time to rest and recover.
Apply ice as soon as possible after injuring a muscle to minimize swelling. Be sure not to apply ice directly to the skin and wrap it in a towel.
Wrap the area in an elastic bandage once you remove the ice to minimize swelling further. Make sure not to wrap the area too tight or risk interrupting blood flow to the area.
Elevate the area above the level of your heart when possible. This helps move fluid away from the injured area.
How to prevent muscle strains
Now that you know how to recognize and treat muscle strains, let’s learn how to prevent them:
Warm-up your muscle before any type of exercise; this gets the blood pumping to the needed areas.
Cool down after exercising; this helps send oxygen to your muscles that are in a deficit after working out.
Stretch your muscles every day for just a few minutes; this alleviates muscle tension and reduces your likelihood of strains.
Train all your muscles when working out, not just targeted areas; this helps ensure all muscles are regularly worked.
Avoid sleeping on your stomach; this creates tension in the body.
When to see a doctor
Most muscle strains are treatable at home and heal within three to six weeks. However, if you are still in discomfort after some time, or have any concerns regarding your injury and recovery, you should consult with an orthopedist for diagnosis and treatment.
Rothman has an experienced team ready to help you recover and be your best self – meeting with one of our specially-trained physicians is just a phone call away at 1-800-321-9999.