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A muscle strain, or pulled muscle, is 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 are most common in your lower back, neck, shoulder, and hamstring (the muscle behind your thigh).
A muscle strain causes 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.
Diagnostic imaging may be necessary to learn the extent of the damage to your muscle. Physical therapy may be recommended. In severe cases, surgical repair may be necessary.
Symptoms of mild to moderate muscle strains are usually gone within a few weeks. More severe strains may take months to heal.
You will generally feel a muscle strain as it occurs. Symptoms include:
In the case of 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, resulting in pain and very limited movement.
An acute muscle strain is when your muscle tears suddenly and unexpectedly. This can be due to:
An acute strain can happen when you:
Chronic muscle strains are the result of repetitive movement. This can be due to:
Most muscle strains can be successfully treated at home. According to the Mayo Clinic, minor muscle strains can be treated with the R.I.C.E. method: rest, ice, compression, and elevation (Mayo Clinic, 2011).
Other self-care methods include:
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:
A physical examination and imaging tests, such as X-ray and magnetic resonance imaging (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.
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.
With proper treatment, most people experience a complete recovery. Your chances of recovery are much better if you take steps to avoid re-injury. Follow your doctor’s instructions after surgery, and do not engage in strenuous physical activity until your muscles have healed.
You can decrease your chances of straining a muscle if you take some basic precautions.
Written by: Ann Pietrangelo
Published on Sep 12, 2012
Updated on Feb 15, 2013
Medically reviewed by George Krucik, MD
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