How to Treat a Pulled Muscle

pulled muscle treatment
A muscle strain often improves with some simple treatment steps. Jeannot Olivet / Getty Images

A muscle strain, also called a pulled muscle, occurs when a muscle is stretched too far, and microscopic tears occur within the muscle fibers. Common muscle strains include pulled hamstrings, groin strains, and calf strains. The usual symptoms of this type of injury include pain, spasm of the muscle, swelling, bruising, and limited mobility. Often an athlete will feel a sudden grabbing or tearing sensation in the muscle, and then be unable to continue their activities.

Muscle strain injuries are graded by severity:

  • Grade I: Mild discomfort, often no disability and usually does not limit activity.
  • Grade II: Moderate discomfort, can limit the ability to perform high-level activities. May have moderate swelling and bruising associated.
  • Grade III: Severe injury that can cause significant pain. Often patients complain of muscle spasm, swelling, and significant bruising.

Guidelines for Treating a Pulled Muscle 

Most muscle strain injuries will heal with simple treatment steps, but performing the right steps, at the right time, can be critical to ensuring the fastest possible recovery. As with many injuries, there is a balance between doing too much, or too little, early after the injury. The amount of activity you will be able to do, and the time required for recovery, is going to vary depending on the severity of the injury. Here are some guidelines to help get you moving in the right direction.

  1. Rest
    Rest is recommended for the early recovery phase, lasting 1 to 5 days depending on the severity of the injury. Immobilization is not usually necessary and can be potentially harmful. Immobilization in a splint or cast should be carefully supervised by your doctor, as this can lead to stiffness of the muscle.
  1. Ice
    Ice application helps reduce swelling, bleeding, and pain. Ice application should begin as soon as possible after sustaining a muscle pull. Ice applications can be done frequently, but should not be done for more than 15 minutes at a time.
  2. Anti-Inflammatory Medications
    Anti-inflammatory medications can help reduce swelling and alleviate painful symptoms. These medications do have potential side effects, and you should check with your doctor prior to starting anti-inflammatory medications.
  3. Gentle Stretching
    Stretching and strengthening are useful in treatment and prevention of muscle strain injuries. Muscles that are stronger and more flexible are less likely to be injured.
  4. Strengthening
    After injuring the muscle, it is important to regain strength before returning to athletic activities. Both the injury itself and the rest period following the injury can reduce the strength of the muscle. Stronger muscles are less likely to sustain a re-injury.
  5. Heat Applications
    Laboratory studies have shown that temperature can influence the stiffness of a muscle. By keeping the body and muscles warm, the muscle is less likely to sustain a strain type of injury.
  6. Avoid Muscle Fatigue:
    Muscles help absorb energy, and restoring the strength of the muscle will help prevent re-injury. Muscles that are fatigued are more likely to be injured. Athletes should use caution, especially as they become fatigued, as the muscle becomes more susceptible to strain injuries.
  1. Warm-Up Properly:
    Warming up prior to athletic competition or sports will help loosen the muscle and prevent injuries. Jumping into a sport with stiff muscles can lead to a higher chance of straining the muscle.

As stated, these are guidelines that will vary depending on the severity of the injury. The best advice to give any athlete trying to return to athletic activity is not to focus on return to sports events immediately following the injury. Instead, focus on the early steps, and progress as your body allows. I use the analogy of climbing a ladder: where you are on the ground, focus on that first step, not the last one, and as you progress, keep climbing!

Sources:

Mair S, et al. The role of fatigue in susceptibility to acute muscle strain injury. Am J Sports Med 1996,24:137-43.

Noonan TJ, and Garrett WE, "Muscle strain injury: diagnosis and treatment" J. Am. Acad. Ortho. Surg., Jul 1999; 7: 262 - 269.

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