Have you ever been sidelined by a strained muscle? Muscle strains are one of the most common injuries athletes and fitness buffs deal with. Although not life-threatening, muscle strains are painful and inconvenient. People toss around the term “muscle strain” loosely, using it to refer to any kind of muscle injury. Have you ever wondered what a strained muscle really is? Most importantly, how can you prevent and treat this common injury?
What is a Muscle Strain?
A muscle strain is an injury caused by suddenly twisting a muscle or stretching it beyond its capacity. Muscle strains can happen when you challenge a muscle with a sudden load it’s not accustomed to during weight training.
Some muscles are more easily strained than others. Muscles most susceptible to injury are the hamstrings, gastrocnemius muscles in the calf and the bicep muscles. The portion of the muscle most prone to injury is where the muscle meets the tendon since that part experiences the most stress with movement. Tendons are thick, fibrous bands of connective tissue that attach muscles to bones. They absorb shock and help protect a muscle against injury.
Muscle strains are graded according to their severity. A first-degree strain is the least serious. First-degree muscle strains arise from overstretching a muscle but these strains don’t tear the muscle tissue. Although first-degree strains are painful, the muscle itself is still intact and usually heals without treatment.
With a second-degree muscle strain, muscle fibers are torn. The more fibers that are torn the more severe the strain is. An athlete with a second-degree strain usually experiences pain and may also experience swelling around the injured muscle or skin discoloration. Depending upon the number of muscle fibers torn, a second-degree strain can be debilitating and slow to heal compared to a first-degree strain.
The most serious of all is a third-degree muscle strain. With a third-degree strain, the muscle is torn from its site of insertion. Ouch! This sometimes happens to athletes during a sporting event and is a medical emergency because it can lead to shock.
Muscle strains can be acute in onset or chronic. With an acute muscle strain, you feel pain right away. Chronic muscle strains usually come from overusing a muscle repeatedly without giving it time to recover. Chronic muscle strains can cause low-grade discomfort for weeks or even months.
How Should You Treat a Muscle Strain?
First and foremost, a strained muscle needs rest. A strained muscle is weaker than a normal one. When you try to exercise with a muscle strain, you risk more serious injury. The old standard – RICE – rest, ice, compression and elevation of the affected muscle still applies. A first-degree sprain where the muscles are just stretched will usually respond well to rest and an ice pack. A second degree may need an ACE bandage to support the muscle and reduce swelling.
What about non-steroidal anti-inflammatory medications (NSAID)? These are among the most common medications doctors prescribe for sports injuries. Although early research questioned whether NSAID might interfere with healing of bone, tendon and muscle injuries, the most recent research doesn’t support this. Still, NSAID can cause digestive upset and have been linked with a greater risk for heart attacks and cardiac events. Stick with ice and natural anti-inflammatories like tart cherry or turmeric unless you’re experiencing a lot of discomfort.
When You Should Seek Medical Attention
A first-degree strain rarely needs medical attention while a third-degree strain is an emergency. Here are some signs you should see a doctor for a painful muscle or limb:
. You can’t move a joint
. You can’t bear weight on a joint or it “gives way”
. You have severe pain, swelling or redness
. You’re experiencing numbness or tingling
. You’ve had a previous injury in that area
When should you return to regular activity? Not until the injured muscle has normal strength and flexibility and you can use the muscle without pain. Otherwise, you’re at higher risk for re-injury.
How to Prevent Muscle Strains
The best way to prevent muscle strain is to warm up the muscles you’re working for 10 minutes. The goal of the warm-up is to gradually raise the temperature of the muscle and increase its elasticity.
Another way to prevent muscle strains is to gradually increase the intensity and volume of your workouts. When your muscles are properly conditioned, they’re less subject to injury. Muscle fatigue is a factor in muscle strains. A muscle strain is most likely to occur towards the end of a workout when you’re fatigued and your form becomes sloppy. Avoid overtraining or doing too much too quickly.
If you’ve had a muscle strain or other injury to a muscle in the past, you’re more susceptible to straining it again in the future. Muscles heal differently than bone. When a broken bone heals, new bone tissue similar to the old bone tissue is laid down. The healed bone is as strong or stronger than it was before. As injured muscles heal, they form scar tissue. Scar tissue isn’t as strong or as elastic as the original tissue. This leaves the muscle at greater risk for future injury. Exercising a strained muscle before it’s healed also increases the risk for re-injury. A muscle strain disrupts the mechanics of the muscle and slightly alters its function, leading to a greater risk for injury.
Identifying muscle weaknesses and imbalances and correcting them through focused exercises will also lower your risk for muscle strains and injuries. Increasing flexibility through stretching exercises can also help. Muscle strains are more common in people with tight muscles.
The Bottom Line?
Muscle strains are one of the most common injuries athletes and weight lifters experience. Correcting muscle imbalances, giving your muscles enough recovery time between training sessions, working on flexibility, not overtraining and warming up before every workout will help you avoid these uncomfortable and sometimes serious injuries.
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