What Causes Muscle Strains and What Should You Do if You Get One?

What Causes Muscle Strains and What Should You Do if You Get One?Chances are you’ve experienced a muscle strain at one time or another. Maybe it happened when you were lifting weights and not paying enough attention to your form or maybe you tried to lift a weight that was too heavy. Ouch! Muscle strains can be painful and inconvenient to have. If you keep trying to exercise a strained muscle it can delay healing and lead to further injuries by affecting your form. What causes a strained muscle?

What is Muscle Strain?

Muscle strains happen when you tear muscle or tendon fibers. This happens when you subject a muscle to more force or stress than it can handle. For example, you lift a weight that’s too heavy or use incorrect form when lifting. It can also happen when you when changing directions suddenly or accelerating or decelerating too quickly.

Muscle strains can also be chronic. Chronic muscle strains come from overuse or repetitive activity. This type of strain comes from cumulative stress placed on the muscle. That’s why muscles need rest time.

Degrees of Muscle Strain

There are different degrees of muscle strain. The most minor form is called a grade one strain. Grade one strains are usually mildly tender and involve little or no swelling.

With a grade one strain, the tendon has been stretched too far but few muscle fibers have been torn. The muscle feels tight but the pain is minimal.

With a grade two strain, the tendon or muscle has been overstretched and muscle fibers have been torn. With this type of strain, you experience pain that’s severe enough to make working with the strained muscle difficult. There’s usually a considerable amount of swelling as well. Sometimes with a grade 2 strain, you hear a popping sound at the time of injury.

Grade three muscle strains cause a significant amount of pain and swelling and make it difficult to even move the muscle. At the time of the injury, you may hear a pop or snap followed by immediate pain. In addition, you may feel a palpable deformity in the muscle. With a grade three strain, a majority of the muscle fibers have been torn. Some grade three strains can be serious enough to require surgery.

Treating Muscle Strains

Grade one strains are usually self-limited. You can usually treat them at home. If you can’t bear weight or move the injured muscle or if any part of the area is numb, red or very tender to the touch, get medical attention.

The goal of treating any muscle strain initially is to reduce pain and swelling as quickly as possible. You may have heard the acronym – RICE. RICE stands for rest, ice, compression and elevation. Compression and ice help to reduce swelling. Wrapping the area with an elastic wrap or compression bandage is the simplest way to reduce swelling.

Once you’ve wrapped the area, apply a cold pack to the area for 15 minutes four or five times a day. Keep the area elevated to further reduce swelling. The hardest part for some people is the R in RICE – rest. To help the strain heal, avoid exercises and activities that cause pain.

Once the initial pain has subsided, start gently stretching the affected muscle several times a day. Once the pain has resolved and you can stretch the muscle without discomfort, focus on strengthening it. Since the muscle hasn’t been used, it’s weaker. This puts you at greater risk for re-injury once you start using it again.

Start with range-of-motion and isometric exercises first to avoid fatiguing the muscle too much. Gradually move to light weights once you can do isometric exercises without discomfort. The key is to gradually regain strength in the affected muscle. For a grade two or three-strain, you may need physical therapy to regain full use of the muscle.

 How Can You Prevent Muscle Strains?

Muscle strains are inconvenient. Take steps to prevent them so they don’t interfere with your training. Here are some simple steps you can take to reduce your risk for muscle strains:

Don’t try to lift more than you’re capable of when strength training. Only use a weight that allows you to use proper form. Gradually work up to heavier weights. Don’t decide you “feel strong” one day and lift a weight that’s significantly heavier than what you’re accustomed to.

Always warm up before doing resistance training. This increases your core body temperature and sends more blood flow to your muscles. Warm muscles are less likely to be damaged than cold ones. When you’re exercising in a cold environment, spend more time warming up.

Don’t overtrain. You’re more likely to strain a muscle that’s fatigued. Plus, muscle fatigue can affect your form. Good form is essential for preventing muscle strains and other injuries.

Cool down and stretch after working out to help lengthen the muscles you’ve just worked.

The Bottom Line?

Muscle strains hurt, and they can set you up for re-injury if you don’t gradually re-strengthen the muscle. Watch out for overtraining too. A weak or fatigued muscle is vulnerable to injury and strain. Take steps to protect yourself against this common problem.



J Am Acad Orthop Surg. July 1999. vol. 7 no. 4 262-269.

Medline Plus. “Strains and Sprains”

Medscape Family Medicine. “Muscle Strain Injuries: Research Findings and Clinical Applicability”


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