Muscle Strains: Causes, Duration, and Recovery

Muscle strains, or pulled muscles, are common injuries that can occur during sports or other physical activities. When you strain a muscle, you’ve stretched it to the point it tears, and it can be very painful.

If you play a sport that involves quick running and kicking, you may be more likely to experience a strained muscle. In fact, sports in which muscle strains are most common are track and field, rugby, American and Australian football, and soccer. Plus, it’s not uncommon for people to re-injure a strained muscle, so it’s important to take proper care to rest and treat the injury before returning to your sport or physical activity of choice.

Muscle strains can happen when you don’t prepare properly for physical activity by warming up and stretching, when you get into an accident, or when you overexert yourself. It’s important to build in time to fully warm-up and stretch your muscles before beginning any kind of physical activity.

In addition, a few factors can make you more likely to strain your muscles again:

  • Not treating the first injury sufficiently
  • Not rehabilitating the muscle
  • Returning to physical activity too quickly

The main symptom of muscle strain is pain. Your pain might be most severe immediately following an injury, but it can continue for a short period of time. You also might experience:

After you strain a muscle, it’s important to take quick steps to treat the pain and swelling:

  • Wrap ice in a cloth and put it on the strained body part for 15 minutes every hour on the first day, then every three to four hours for the following days. Raise your strained limb above your heart if possible. After three days, you can alternate between heat and ice.
  • You may find that over-the-counter (OTC) medicines designed to reduce inflammation, such as Tylenol (acetaminophen), can improve your pain and swelling.
  • After the pain begins to ease, begin to incorporate stretching and light physical activity.

It’s important to pay close attention to how you are feeling after straining a muscle. See your healthcare provider if you experience any of these symptoms:

  • Lots of swelling near the strained muscle, particularly if the swelling is beginning to get worse
  • Trouble moving arms, legs, or joints
  • Pain that has not gone away for several weeks

If your pain is severe, your healthcare provider may be able to prescribe you other medicines to reduce inflammation and pain. They may also recommend physical therapy to help rebuild your flexibility and strength.

Strained muscles can occur when you haven’t warmed up or stretched properly before exercising. Make sure to take time to ensure your muscles are ready to move before jumping into physical activity.

To prepare your body for exercise, make sure you:

  • Begin by moving your body slowly before speeding up to your full movement. For example, walk for five minutes before jogging.
  • Incorporate stretches after your warm up—don’t stretch your muscles before they’re warm. Hold stretches for at least 15 to 30 seconds each, and don’t bounce in your stretches.

At the end of your workout, cool your body down with similar warm-up movements. This helps bring your body back to its normal temperature and heart rate.

In addition, some research suggests that strains can be caused by some of your muscles being stronger than others, such as your hamstrings being less strong than your quadriceps. You may want to try exercises that target different muscle groups to ensure you’re building your body’s strength evenly across muscle groups.

Finally, some research shows that fatigue can be a cause of muscle strain. As always, make sure to listen to your body when exercising, and stop or slow down if your body begins to feel exhausted.

Muscle strains are extremely common injuries for athletes and non-athletes alike. It’s important to stretch and warm up your muscles before any kind of physical activity to avoid injury. Most mild cases of muscle strain can be treated at home using ice, rest, heat, and anti-inflammatory medications, but it’s important to visit your healthcare provider for more severe cases.

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