Medical News Today: What to know about muscle strain

Muscle strain occurs when a muscle becomes overstretched or works too hard. People can often treat muscle strains at home and use specific exercises to speed up their recovery.

Muscle strains vary in severity depending on how much damage the muscle fibers sustain. Strains range from mild overexertion to a partial or complete tear of the muscle.

In many cases, home care and exercises can heal a muscle strain, but severe strains may need medical treatment.

People can get muscle strains from playing sports, doing physical work, or just taking part in everyday activities. Early identification and treatment of the injury will speed up recovery.

Symptoms

woman on sofa holding leg with muscle strain
A muscle strain can cause cramps and pain in the affected area.

Muscle strains can cause a variety of uncomfortable symptoms, including:

  • bruising
  • muscle cramps
  • difficulty moving the muscle
  • muscle spasms
  • muscle weakness
  • pain, which usually worsens with movement
  • swelling

A person may also hear an audible snapping or popping when the muscle strains.


Causes

A strained muscle occurs when a person stretches a muscle excessively, overuses a muscle, or experiences an accident, such as a fall.

People with tight, inflexible muscles and those who do not warm up properly before exercise may have a higher risk of muscle strain.

Some people whose job requires them to do repetitive movements, such as heavy lifting or sports, may develop chronic muscle strain injuries.


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Diagnosis

If a doctor suspects a muscle strain, they will perform a physical examination and ask a person about their symptom history. They may also order imaging studies, such as X-rays, to make sure that the bone has not broken.

As part of the diagnosis, a doctor will usually designate the injury as a grade 1, 2, or 3 strain. A grade 1 strain is mild and should heal quickly, while a grade 3 strain is a severe muscle tear.


How to treat muscle strain

Even if a person’s muscle strain does not require medical attention, it is important to rest the muscle and allow time for recovery. A strained muscle is more susceptible to re-injury.

Home remedies

person applying ice pack to arm
A person can apply an ice pack to help reduce swelling.

Several home treatments can help promote muscle healing. One of the most effective approaches to muscle strain recovery is the RICE technique.

RICE stands for:

  • Rest: Resting the injured muscle gives the body time to repair.
  • Ice: Applying a cloth-covered ice pack to the damaged muscle for 10 to 15 minutes at a time can help reduce swelling and inflammation.
  • Compression: If possible, apply a compression bandage to reduce swelling. People can use cloth or elastic bandages from drug stores or online stores to wrap up an injured foot, ankle, leg, wrist, or arm.
  • Elevation: Elevating an injured arm or leg can help reduce swelling and allow fluid to flow back toward the heart.

Learn more about the RICE method here.

In addition to using the RICE method, a person can take medication to control pain and reduce swelling or inflammation.

Over-the-counter (OTC) nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs), such as ibuprofen and naproxen, reduce both pain and inflammation. Acetaminophen can relieve pain, but it does not have the anti-inflammatory properties of NSAIDs.

Medical treatments

If OTC medications are insufficient to relieve pain, a doctor may prescribe stronger anti-inflammatory medications, muscle relaxants, or pain-relieving medicines.

Massage therapy may also help relax injured muscles and enhance a person’s range of motion.

Recovery exercises

If a doctor clears a person to engage in regular exercise after their injury, they can usually benefit from doing stretching exercises. It is important to talk to a doctor before trying recovery exercises, as overexerting an already injured muscle can cause extra damage.

A person should never stretch to the extent that it causes pain and discomfort.

The specific stretches will depend on the injured area, but a person should always repeat the stretch two or three times. Examples of these stretches include:

1. Hamstring stretch

Tight hamstrings can make walking and running difficult and increase injury risk.

To stretch the hamstrings, stand with the feet hip-width apart, and bend at the waist to lean forward. There should be a mild stretch along the back of the legs.

2. Hip flexor stretch

For a strained muscle in the hip, lie flat on the back and pull the right knee to the chest. Hold it there for 10 to 15 seconds before straightening the leg out again. Repeat with the left leg, feeling a stretch in the upper thigh and hips.

3. Neck stretches

For a strained neck muscle, lean the head forward to try to touch the chin to the chest. Next, lean the head first to the left and then to the right, trying to touch the ear to the shoulder.

Prevention

People may be able to prevent muscle strains by warming up the muscles before doing physical activity and by avoiding overstretching the muscles.

Following the guidance below may help prevent muscle strains:

  • Walk at a moderate pace for 3 to 5 minutes before doing any sports or other physical activities. Doing this will warm up the muscles and prepare them for an increase in the intensity of the activity.
  • Follow a healthful diet and exercise program to maintain a healthy weight. Excess weight can put additional stress on the muscles, making muscle strains more likely to occur.
  • Lift heavy objects or items with care and always use the correct technique. It is vital to lift with the legs rather than the back and to carry any heavy loads with the torso to avoid straining the arm or back muscles.
  • Wear shoes that provide stability and ensure that any other protective equipment fits appropriately and is in good condition.

Some people may benefit from working with a physical therapist or a strength and conditioning professional to help improve their exercise technique and allow them to build strength and flexibility safely.


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Recovery times

The duration of recovery after a muscle strain will depend on the severity of the injury.

Most soft tissue injuries take a few weeks to heal, but severe strains may take much longer.

Trying to return to normal activities too soon can cause further injury, so always follow a doctor’s instructions and start gently.

If a person’s injury requires surgery, the recovery time will depend on the nature of the procedure. A doctor will be able to provide information on the likely timeframe of recovery after surgery.

When to see a doctor

female doctor examining female patients leg
A person should consult a doctor if there is serious bruising.

It is important to see a doctor for any painful muscle strain to get an accurate diagnosis and appropriate treatment.

If a person hears a popping sound when the injury occurs, this can indicate a muscle tear. A tear is a severe strain that will need medical attention.

If the pain from an injury gets worse instead of better, this can signify that a person should seek medical attention.

Other symptoms that indicate the need to visit a doctor include:

  • severe swelling that makes it difficult to move the injured area
  • difficulty bending or straightening the affected area
  • significant bruising

People should see a doctor if their injury keeps them from completing their usual physical activities.


Outlook

Muscle strains can range from mild to severe. Taking time to rest and rehabilitate the strained muscle can help a person recover and return to their previous physical activity level. Performing some simple stretching exercises, with a doctor’s approval, may also be beneficial.

If the pain worsens or gets in the way of everyday activities, it is best to see a doctor.

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