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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:
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:
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:
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:
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:
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:
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.
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.
Written by: Ann Pietrangelo and Kristeen Cherney
Medically reviewed on: Oct 20, 2015: Debra Sullivan, PhD, RN, CNE, COI
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