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What is a muscle strain?
A muscle strain is an injury to one of your muscles that causes it to tear. They’re one of the most common injuries, especially among athletes.
Strains are classified with three grades to indicate how severe they are. Most people can recover by resting their muscle and using at-home treatments like ice and over-the-counter medicine. If you’re feeling pain for a few weeks after your injury or have severe symptoms, see your healthcare provider.
What is the difference between a muscle strain and a pulled muscle?
There’s no difference between a strained muscled and a pulled muscle. People use the terms interchangeably. The same is true for a strained muscle and a torn muscle. They’re the same injury with the same symptoms and treatments.
Muscle strains vs. hernias
Muscles strains and hernias can both be caused by overuse, but they’re different injuries.
Muscles strains are caused by tears in the fibers of your muscles. Unless they’re very severe, you can treat a muscle strain at home with rest, icing and over-the-counter medicine.
Hernias happen when one of your internal organs or other body parts breaks through the wall of muscle or tissue that normally holds it in place. Hernias usually don’t get better on their own, and you’ll probably need surgery to repair one.
Muscle strains and other injuries
There are lots of common injuries that cause muscle pain similar to muscle strains, including:
- Pinched nerves.
- Herniated disks.
- Blood clots.
Talk to your provider if you experience any sudden, sharp pain in your body, especially if it happens during physical activity like a workout or playing sports.
Who do muscle strains affect?
Muscle strains can affect anyone. They’re common in athletes and people who are especially active.
Even if you don’t play sports or work out often, you can still strain a muscle, especially if you suddenly exert yourself much harder than you usually do.
How common are muscle strains?
Muscle strains are very common. They’re one of the most common injuries people experience.
How do muscle strains affect my body?
Muscle strains happen when you tear a muscle. They’re painful. They might also cause other symptoms like bruising and weakness.
Your muscles are made of thousands of small fibers woven together. These fibers stretching and pressing together are what allow your body to move when you squeeze a muscle.
When you overuse a muscle, the strands of muscle fiber are stretched beyond their limit and tear apart. If you’ve ever tried to use an old bungee cord to hold something in place you’ve seen this happen.
New bungee cords — and healthy muscle fibers — have plenty of give and stretch. But if you use them for too long or suddenly jerk on them too hard, the elastic fibers in the bungee cord will start to pull apart. It’s the same way in your muscles. Strains are what happens when some of the thousands of fibers in your muscles are pulled beyond their limit and tear.
You can strain muscles anywhere in your body. Some of the most common include:
Symptoms and Causes
What are muscle strain symptoms?
Symptoms of a muscle strain include:
- Difficulty moving a muscle like you usually can.
- Weakness in a muscle.
- Bruising or discoloration.
- Muscle spasms.
What causes a muscle strain?
Muscle strains happen when you tear the fibers of your muscle. Causes of muscle strains include:
- Overuse: Repeating the same motion — whether at work or during an activity like playing sports — can lead to overuse syndrome.
- Not stretching or warming up before exercise: Stretching before exercise gradually increases how much stress you put on your muscles.
- A lack of flexibility: If you’re not very flexible, your muscles (and the fibers in them) are tighter, which makes them more susceptible to strains.
Diagnosis and Tests
How are muscle strains diagnosed?
Your healthcare provider will diagnose a muscle strain with a physical exam. Make sure to tell them what you were doing when you first noticed your symptoms. Because muscle strains come from physical activities, it’s important they know what led to yours.
Your provider will classify your muscle strain by grade according to how severe it is:
- Grade 1 (mild).
- Grade 2 (moderate).
- Grade 3 (severe).
What tests will be done to diagnose a muscle strain?
If you have a more severe strain, your provider might use some imaging tests to diagnose your muscle strain:
- Ultrasound: Your provider will use an ultrasound to check for tears or fluid buildup around your strained muscle.
- MRI: An MRI will let your provider check for blood clots, a tear or internal bleeding.
These tests will also help them see if your injury damaged any other tissues like your tendons or ligaments.
Management and Treatment
How are muscle strains treated?
You can treat most muscle strains with at-home methods of first aid, including:
- Rest: Stop the physical activity that caused your strain to avoid further damaging your muscle.
- Ice: Apply an ice pack or cold compress for 10 to 15 minutes every hour for the first day after your injury. After one day, you can apply ice every three to four hours. Don’t apply ice directly to your skin (wrap your ice pack in a towel or washcloth).
- Elevation: If possible, keep your injured muscle elevated above your heart.
Muscle strain surgery
It’s rare to need surgery for a muscle strain. If you have a severe strain (Grade 3), you might need surgery to repair your torn muscle. Your healthcare provider will tell you which kind of surgery you’ll need and what you can expect.
What medications are used to treat muscle strains?
Your provider might recommend you use over-the-counter NSAIDs like aspirin, ibuprofen (Motrin® and Advil®) or naproxen (Aleve®).
Don’t use an NSAID continuously for more than 10 days unless your provider says it’s okay.
It’s rare to need prescription medication like muscle relaxers for a muscle strain. Your provider will tell you which medications to take based on your specific symptoms.
How soon will I feel better?
Depending on how severe your original muscle strain is, you should feel better in a few weeks. Talk to your healthcare provider before resuming any intense physical activities.
If you start working out or playing sports again before your muscle is healed, you’re at an increased risk of re-injuring it and hurting your muscle worse than the original strain.
How can I prevent muscle strains?
The best way to prevent muscle strains is to stretch and warm up before exercising. Increasing your overall flexibility will also protect your muscles from future injuries. The more flexible you are, the more room your muscle fibers have to stretch before they begin to tear.
It’s similar to how certain fabrics have more give than others. Your favorite pair of jeans have plenty of flexibility to them because you’ve stretched them out over years. On the other hand, you might have to wear a brand-new pair a few times before they feel comfortable. Your muscles are the same way. The more you work them out and gradually stretch them, the more flexibility and give they have when you move.
Outlook / Prognosis
What can I expect if I have a muscle strain?
You should expect to make a full recovery from a muscle strain. You should regain all your strength and ability to move your muscle after it heals.
Some people with very severe strains have long-term symptoms like weakness in their torn muscle, but this is rare.
How long does a muscle strain last?
How long your strain lasts depends on which muscle you injured and how badly it was strained. Most muscle strains heal in a few weeks with at-home treatments.
Will I need to miss work or school with a muscle strain?
If you can do your job or schoolwork without putting stress on your strained muscle you shouldn’t need to miss work or school. Talk to your provider about which activities you should avoid while you’re recovering. Check with your provider before resuming any intense activity.
Outlook for muscle strains
The outlook for muscle strains is positive. Once you’ve pulled a muscle, you have an increased risk of hurting it again in the future. Make sure to warm up before exercising or playing sports, and give your body time to rest and recover after intense activity.
When should I see my healthcare provider?
Talk to your healthcare provider right away if you’re experiencing severe symptoms like intense pain. If you’re still feeling pain after a few weeks of at-home treatments, talk to your provider.
When should I go to ER?
Go to the emergency room right away if you experience any of the following symptoms:
- Bleeding in or around your strained muscle.
- You can’t move a part of your body.
- Swelling that won’t go away or is getting worse.
What questions should I ask my doctor?
- Which muscle is strained?
- How long will I need to rest my muscle?
- Which grade of strain do I have?
- Are there any activities I should avoid while I’m recovering?
A note from Cleveland Clinic
Straining a muscle is painful. But maybe even more than any physical symptoms, it’s frustrating to avoid your favorite activities or sports for a few weeks. But your muscle needs to heal, and giving it that time is the best way to make sure you’ll be able to get back to what you love as soon as it’s safe. Don’t be afraid to reach out to your provider with questions. Just because an injury is common doesn’t mean your situation isn’t unique.
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