At one point in our lives almost all of us have felt that odd pulling sensation in a muscle followed by an uncomfortable spasm when performing an exercise or movement. Often at the time it feels uncomfortable, tight, or even slightly painful but we figure we can continue on with what we were doing only to find later on that this decision may not have been the best. You probably have strained or “pulled” a muscle.
A muscle strain occurs when the muscle or parts of the muscle can not overcome the forces applied to it. In the process it has either over-stretched or overly contracted and caused some soft tissue damage to the muscle fibers and possibly to the connective tissue as well. Although there are built in sensors within the tendons that act like circuit breakers when it experiences too much force, occasionally they do not respond fast enough or accurately leading to the strain. This can be caused by trying to lift a weight that is too heavy, a muscle (or muscles) that don’t activate at the appropriate time, or a sudden change in biomechanics leading to a sudden overload on the muscle supporting the joint. The tightness can often by physically felt in the affected muscle as a knot or tension due to the fact the muscle has entered a protective mode of increasing tension to reduce further damage.
A muscle strain is different from a tear where the actual muscle tissue has torn either partially, or in severe cases completely, and resulted in partial to total dysfunction. These tears often are accompanied with bleeding, swelling, and intense pain within the muscle. This type of injury often requires more advanced medical care and diagnosis to assess for any further damage to the surrounding joint and to plan a course for rehabilitation. Luckily, muscle strains often get batter on their own through adequate rest and gentle movement.
What do I do if I think I have strained or pulled a muscle?
If you think you may have pulled a muscle the first thing you should do is to stop doing the movement that you think caused the pull. Continuing to “work through” the pain and complete the workout or task will only cause the muscle strain to get worse and increase the risk of further damage. To be safe, you should consider stopping the workout or task all together to start the healing process and to guard against any further injury.
Depending on the extent of the damage, swelling can begin to set in over the next few hours resulting in more pain and discomfort. Applying ice immediately to the area can help decrease the swelling and anti-inflammatories that are approved for your situation can also help. It can sometimes be difficult to tell the severity of the strain so it is generally a good idea to assume the injury is worse than you think and act appropriately. A strain is also different than a muscle cramp. Although the true cause of muscle cramps is not clear, a muscle cramp often occurs when the muscle overly and persistently contracts either as a form of protection, a neurological phenomenon, or a biochemical reaction within the muscle. To immediately reduce the intensity of the muscle cramp, continue to move the affected joint as it increases the energy production within the muscle which is essential to allowing the muscle to relax. This movement combined with gentle stretching and massage to deactivate the nerves can also be helpful. To help prevent further muscle cramps ensure good nutrition by eating a well-balanced diet, adequate hydration by consuming approximately 3-4 liters of fluids a day, and a good level of overall fitness through exercising at least 150 minutes a week at a moderate to high intensity.
Use caution when stretching a strained muscle. Although your instinct might be to try and reduce the spasm, it may not be a good idea to initially stretch a strained muscle aggressively during the first 24 hours as this could cause further damage. Massage, rolling, and percussion massage should also be used with care for the same reasons. However, these techniques can be useful later on to reduce the uncomfortable tension or spasms that can continue to occur as the muscle heals.
How do I work back into my workouts.
It is usually best to let pain be your guide. Often mild strains can resolve themselves in a few days and you can start back gently for the first workout with a reduced amount of weight and or volume. A more serious strain can take up to 7 to 10 days to recover and it is important to let it rest and recover enough before you head back to your workouts or former activity level. On your first day back, reduce the intensity by about 25% and the total volume by 50% in order to test how the muscles will respond. Although it might feel like a step backwards, remember that the faster you get back to normal the quicker you will progress. If you rush it you may find yourself back in the same situation, delaying your progress even further.
How can I reduce the chance of a pulled muscle?
There are a number of things you can do to help reduce your risk of pulled muscles.
- Perform a proper warm-up to help increase muscle temperature, blood flow, and prime the nervous system to help improve your muscle response time and readiness to work. Light cardiovascular exercise combined with specific movements that reflect the activity such as warm-up sets or dynamic stretching are all part of a good warm-up
- Make sure your training routine and overall fitness is well balanced and focuses on symmetrical strength, muscle development and flexibility and addresses any weak points that may predispose you to injury.
- Gradually adjust intensity slowly to allow the muscles to adapt and respond. The general rule of thumb is that a change in volume and or intensity of about 10% per week is a common amount that most people can handle.
- Focus on proper technique in order to not over stress the joints and muscles. Common mistakes include rounding the upper back, twisting while bending forward, lifting a weight that is too heavy causing early technical failure, or performing the movement too fast which affects control and may not be necessary.
Although muscle strains and pulls can sometimes be an inevitable part of moving, there are definitely successful techniques to help reduce the risk, speed healing, and guard against future injury.