Most active people have dealt with the problem of a “pulled muscle” at one time or another. The topic dominates the injury reports given to coaches as well as the sports page of the newspaper on a daily basis. Many competitive athletes as well as “weekend warriors” have been sidelined due to an acute muscle injury. In sports medicine, damage to a muscle caused by over-stretching is defined as a muscle strain (which is used interchangeably with muscle pull).
Although many different muscles can be strained, the mechanism of injury is almost always the same. For example, say that a high school track athlete injures her hamstring while clearing the last hurdle of the race. The injury resulted from the hamstring muscle group (the muscles on the back of the leg that are responsible for bending the knee) being stretched beyond what it was capable of handling.
Obviously, the amount of damage to the muscle can range from very mild to a complete tear of the muscle, the latter being very rare of course. Some common signs of symptoms of a strained muscle include pain in the muscle, swelling, inflammation and lack of flexibility (range of motion) in the muscle. Also, in deciding if you have a strained muscle, keep the mechanism of injury in mind. In other words, did you do something to cause the muscle to be stretched beyond its limit?
So let’s say that you are fairly sure that you have a mild or moderate muscle strain what should you do now? Always begin to treat any injury of the muscles, bones or joints with ice. It is very difficult to do any harm by applying ice to the injured area for 15 – 20 minutes, and the beneficial effects can be great. Ice will serve to decrease the inflammation, swelling and pain. Icing cycles can be repeated once every one to three hours. Also, light compression using an elastic bandage is often helpful to reduce swelling. However, after the initial swelling and inflammation have subsided with time and ice treatment, application of moist heat may be beneficial. Moist heat can be applied using a commercially available moist heat pack or by applying a war, damp towel to the affected area. Heat rubs such as Flex-All 454 can be helpful for treating a muscle strain.
Naturally, your injured muscle will need some time to repair itself. The amount of time needed for recovery will vary with the extent of the injury. Pain and flexibility will have additional suggestions for treatment, especially if you are involved in competitive athletics and your recovery time must be minimized.
It cannot be overemphasized that the best way to prevent muscle strains from occurring is by flexibility training. You should always properly stretch your muscles prior to exercise. This, alone with warming up well before exercising, will significantly reduce your chances of suffering a muscle strain.
As with any injury, please consult your health care provider if you feel that you have a significant injury or if you believe that your injury is not healing properly.