What are muscle strains?
A muscle strain is the stretching or tearing of muscle fibers. Most muscle strains happen for two reasons: either the muscle has been stretched beyond its limits or forced to contract too strongly. Only a few muscle fibers are stretched or torn in mild cases, and the muscle remains intact and strong. In severe cases, however, the strained muscle may be torn and unable to function correctly. To help simplify diagnosis and treatment, doctors often classify muscle strains into three grades, depending on the severity of muscle fiber damage:
- Grade I strain. In this mild strain, only a few muscle fibers are stretched or torn. Although the injured muscle is tender and painful, it has normal strength.
- Grade II strain. It is a moderate strain, with a greater number of injured fibers and more severe muscle pain and tenderness. There is also mild swelling, noticeable loss of strength, and sometimes a bruise.
- Grade III strain. This strain tears the muscle all the way through, sometimes causing a "pop" sensation as the muscle rips into two separate pieces or shears away from its tendon. Grade III strains are serious injuries that cause complete loss of muscle function and considerable pain, swelling, tenderness, and discoloration. Grade III strains usually cause a sharp break in the normal outline of the muscle. There may be a noticeable "dent" or "gap" under the skin where the ripped pieces of muscle have come apart.
Causes of muscle strains
An acute muscle strain is when your muscle tears suddenly and unexpectedly. Such tears can occur either from injuries or trauma. It can be due to:
- not warming up properly before physical activity
- poor flexibility
- poor conditioning
- overexertion and fatigue
There's a misconception that only rigorous exercises and workouts of high intensity cause muscle strains. An acute strain can happen when you:
- slip or lose your footing
- throw something
- lift something heavy
- lift something while you're in an awkward position
Acute muscle strains are also more common in cold weather. It is because muscles are stiffer in lower temperatures. It's essential to take extra time to warm up in these conditions to prevent strains.
Chronic muscle strains are the result of repetitive movement. It can be due to:
- sports like rowing, tennis, golf, or baseball
- holding your back or neck in an awkward position for long periods, such as when you work at a desk
- poor posture
Muscle Strain Treatment
1. Control Swelling and Prevent Further Injury With PRICE
- Protect by applying an elastic bandage, sling, or splint.
- Rest the muscle for at least a day.
- Ice immediately, and continue to ice for 10 to 15 minutes every hour, for 2-3 days.
- Compress by gently wrapping with an Ace or other elastic bandage. (Don't wrap tightly.)
- Elevate the injured area above the person's heart level, if possible, for at least 24 hours.
2. Manage Pain and Inflammation
- Take an over-the-counter pain medication like aspirin or ibuprofen. Do not give aspirin to anyone under age 18.
3. Follow Up
- Elevate and ice the area every 3 to 4 hours after the first day.
4. Other self-care methods
- After three days, apply heat to the muscle several times a day. It will help bring blood circulation to the area for healing.
- Don't rest your muscle for too long. It can cause stiffness and weakness. Begin light stretching as soon as possible. Slowly increase your level of activity.
- Make sure to stretch and warm up before exercising when you return to regular activity. It will help increase blood flow to your muscles and decrease your risk of injury.
- Make an effort to stay in shape. You're less likely to develop a strain if your muscles are strong and healthy.
- Sports massage. Sports massage can help reduce pain and prevent injuries that significantly affect your overall performance in athletic events. The benefits of sports massage go beyond soothing your muscles. It helps to:
- increased Range of Motion (ROM)
- decreased potential for injury
- increased awareness of your body
- faster recovery of muscles
- increased efficiency of muscle use
- decreased recovery time
When to See a Doctor
Call a health care provider if:
- After a day or two, the person can't move or put weight on the affected area.
- The injured area is cool, pale, or changes color.
- There is tingling or numbness.
- There is new or severe pain.
- The person needs advice on how (and how soon) to resume regular exercise and activity.