Muscle strains are a common musculoskeletal issue. Over half of athletes will encounter a muscle strain at some point in their career! You don’t have to be an athlete to develop a muscle strain, either; this musculoskeletal injury can occur in individuals who lift heavy equipment, engage in repetitive motions and activities, or even have poor posture sustained for long periods.
A muscle strain commonly referred to as a “pulled muscle” is a muscular injury that occurs when a muscle is stretched or torn beyond its normal limits. Think of a scenario like lifting a piano, picking a heavy printer off the floor, or being tackled during a rugby game. Muscle strains can occur during high exertion activities such as sports and activities just as often as running a marathon – or watching a marathon of movies while slouched comfortably into the couch.
Why do muscles become strained? Muscles are comprised of bands and bundles of soft tissue fibers that contract and elongate together. Take a pile of rubber bands and lay them out side-by-side. Practice bending and stretching the bands together. Our muscles work very similarly with stretch and tension!
Ultimately, muscles are responsible for body movement. When a muscle contracts, it can move other parts of the body or help us interact with our environment. When the muscle is forced to contract beyond its anatomical threshold, it cannot sustain the pressure or tension – and breaks.
When do muscle strains occur?
Muscle strains affect the integrity of the muscle fibers. They can occur during three scenarios: when a muscle is stretched beyond its limits, when a muscle is forced to contract too strongly, or when a muscle remains in a prolonged position for an extended amount of time.
Muscle strains can also be acute, such as the stretching forces associated with whiplash from a car accident, or chronic with repetitive motions, like coughing due to prolonged illness. Many activities can cause a muscle strain because of our everyday dependence on muscles!
Typically, muscle fiber tears that occur from healthy exertion heal quickly, and the muscle remains intact and whole. Most muscle strains are minor and usually go away with rest. However, muscle strains can also be significant and result in large tears, bruising, and even reduced movement or loss of function.
What does a muscle strain feel like?
Muscle strains may present differently depending on the severity of the tears in the muscle. Various descriptions include general discomfort, dull cramping sensations, aching, or sharp spasm. Muscle strains vary in discomfort from general tenderness or achy feelings to sharp pain and muscle pain that occurs with contraction of the muscle. According to Harvard Health, a person should also look for:
- Swelling, bruising, or discoloration.
- Pain that increases with movement and decreases with rest.
- Decreased movement and/or loss of muscle strength.
- A “pop” feeling in the muscle at the time of injury.
- A gap, dent, or other defects in the muscle that wasn’t there before.
One or more of these signs together may indicate a muscle strain. Here’s that article from Harvard Health if you want to read more: https://www.health.harvard.edu/a_to_z/muscle-strain-a-to-z
And another article about the persistence of muscle strain injuries in athletes. This is a great, if advanced, read about the nuances of muscle strain management. Although the article is focused on sports and performance, the information is relevant to the non-athlete patient as well:
Orchard and Best (2002) report that an average muscle strain will resolve with an appropriate recovery program in approximately 2-3 weeks; however, the muscle still displays characteristics of healing progress at that point in time. Although the pain may disappear – the muscle is still healing. Not only is it essential to not “rush” back into a routine after a possible muscle strain, but you want to ensure your muscle strain has been appropriately managed by your chiropractor, too.
This brings us to the next point in muscle strains: Are they all the same?
Varying levels of muscle strain severity
Muscle strains are not one-size-fits-all. Muscle strains can be divided into three categories of severity:
- Grade I strain. This is a mild strain with only a few small tears in the muscle fibers. It is often self-resolving, meaning the discomfort goes away on its own in a few hours to a few days. There is no loss of movement or function of the muscle.
- Grade II strain. This is a moderate strain with multiple tears in the muscle fibers. Bruising, uncomfortable and/or diminished movement, and swelling may accompany this injury. The pain and discomfort are often greater than a Grade I strain and may last several days to severe weeks. A Grade II muscle strain may go away on its own, or it may need evaluation from a medical professional depending on the severity.
- Grade III strain. This significant and severe muscle strain may result in a complete tear in the muscle belly or rip away from a tendon, often accompanied by a “pop” sensation. This painful level of strain presents with swelling, bruising, discoloration, significant loss of function and movement, and/or even the formation of a “lump” or indented area of the muscle if it tears from where it was previously attached. This injury requires a medical evaluation and may need surgery or treatment intervention depending on presentation and impact on regular activities.
Check out this article by the Mayo Clinic to read more about muscle strains and how they feel: https://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/muscle-strains/symptoms-causes/syc-20450507
Is a chiropractor the right doctor to manage a muscle strain?
Absolutely. If you’re not sure about what step is appropriate to take, call your chiropractor. An evaluation will determine the extent of muscle injury and if further intervention is required. The doctor can also determine if you need to restrict activities, take days off work, or, depending on the severity, undergo physical therapy and rehabilitation.
Prevention of muscle strains is the best form of treatment. Taking breaks to get up and move can reduce or even eliminate the impact of posture-related strains. Stretching before and after exercising can help reduce the likelihood of muscle strains, too.
However, not all muscle strains can be prevented, such as those that occur with contact sports and motor vehicle collisions. For those, a medical evaluation and treatment are both appropriate and encouraged in our office.
Proper treatment and time usually relieve mild discomfort associated with muscle strains. Additionally, changes in movement and ergonomics may be part of an effective recovery plan. If repetitive activities or postural stress that caused your muscle strain is part of your job, you may not be able to avoid the activity altogether. Still, your chiropractor can help provide alternate instructions and give stretches and exercises to help alleviate any discomfort.
Give us a call if you are experiencing:
- Difficulty or loss of ability with movements
- Muscle pain that prevents you from proper rest
- Swelling, redness, bruising, or discoloration
- Pain that persists longer than several days
- Difficulty or loss of ability to bend the knee
- Any other unusual symptoms prompting immediate medical attention
Muscle strain is best diagnosed with a proper evaluation and assessment. A doctor of chiropractic is a musculoskeletal specialist and the right person to assess the most common knee conditions. Management depends on the severity of the symptoms and the ability to continue performing usual activities and movement patterns. Additionally, conservative care options will depend on the severity, duration, and frequency of your pain, as well as the activities impacted by your condition.
Thankfully, mild to moderate muscle strains usually respond well to conservative care!
How we address muscle strains
Our goal is to not only provide you with the correct diagnosis of your injury but also determine the underlying root cause of your injury and create an individualized treatment plan specifically for you. We have many tools in our toolbox to conduct an effective evaluation and create an appropriate treatment.
Conservative care is a keystone for our Boca Raton Sports Chiropractic practice. Treatment options may include specific stretches for muscles and tendons of the affected muscle, joint mobilization, specific exercises to strengthen the surrounding muscles and tendons, hands-on soft tissue work into the muscles and fascia, changes in exercise routine or modifications at work or home, home exercise, and stretching programs, and more.
Your treatment plan is unique to you and your condition. Some approaches we may use to help your knee pain consists of sports rehabilitation exercises to perform at home or in the office, as well as targeted soft tissue therapies including Active Release Techniques (Muscle Work), chiropractic, Graston Technique®, and deep tissue laser therapy to help with your knee pain.
Frequently Asked Questions (FAQ)
Can I do anything at home for a muscle strain? You can do several things at home as first-line responses to help a strained muscle heal and prevent further injury. If you are in significant pain or your ability to perform routine activities is impacted, then calling your doctor for guidance is the best course of action.
If your discomfort is mild to moderate, avoid activities that increase muscle pain in the affected area until the pain has improved. Over-the-counter medication to reduce inflammation and pain may also help.
If there is bruising or swelling, an ice pack swaddled in a paper towel or thin cloth may help. Early application of heat is not recommended if there is swelling and pain, but heat can be used when the swelling has lessened. And, if possible, elevating the affected body part can help reduce swelling. Compression and elevation of the affected area can also help reduce swelling and improve pain.
We take muscle strains seriously. Give us a call, and we can often get you in for a same-day appointment.
I’m not an athlete. Could I still develop a muscle strain?
Age and repetitive activities have increased the risk of developing muscle and soft tissue injuries. Research shows that increased age can increase the risk of developing muscle strains. Check out this research article here to read more about age and its impact on various musculoskeletal conditions: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6345250/
Although muscle strains can be associated with increased age, the injury is also associated with heavy lifting, recreational sports, or taking up a new exercise routine like a couch-to-5K running program.
Chopping vegetables, stocking a warehouse, scanning groceries at the store, and other movements that are performed redundantly can contribute to small tears in the muscle that may develop into bigger issues.
Sometimes muscle strains occur from mishaps or accidents. Fender benders from motor vehicle collisions and small motions like stepping off a curb incorrectly can result in muscle strains, too.
A muscle strain that prevents you from doing your job walking, sitting, or engaging in recreation should prompt you to seek a trained musculoskeletal specialist for an evaluation and possible management. From there, your doctor can advise you to modify your activities to include rest, exercise, or another treatment intervention.
Is surgery needed for muscle strains?
Surgical interventions are not recommended as first-line treatment for muscle strains. The “pulled” condition of the muscle fibers often recover within several weeks with conservative care. Exercise, rehabilitation, soft tissue, and myofascial work, taping, and other approaches for care work without the use of surgery for mild to moderate muscle strains.
However, severe muscle strains may require surgical intervention. If the muscle is fully torn (avulsed), this may cause high pain levels, impact your abilities to complete daily activities, and/or diminish sports performance. Surgery may be an option in those cases.
Although our office does not perform surgery, if your muscle strain is severe and requires advanced medical intervention, we will get you to the right doctor for that, too.
If you are dealing with a muscle strain and want a same-day examination and treatment for your injury, call our Boca Raton or Miami chiropractic and sports injury office at 561-997-8898 or schedule online!