A muscle strain — sometimes called a pulled or torn muscle — can lead to pain and weakness. A common sports injury, muscle strains can mean downtime and missed workouts.
Some strains are minor and heal on their own, whereas others may require physical therapy. Surgery is rare for muscle strains.
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Doctors define a strain as an injury to a muscle or tendon. The term strain can include anything from an overstretched tendon or muscle fiber to a complete tear or rupture.
Athletes who participate in contact sports, like football, basketball, and wrestling, are at risk for strains. But so are gymnasts, tennis players, golfers, and any athlete who uses the same muscles over and over.
In fact, muscle strain is among the most common athletic injuries.
Strains occur when your muscle stretches beyond its normal range of motion. It can also occur when you put more load on the muscle than it's strong enough to handle.
When this happens, the muscle fibers tear, resulting in a pulled muscle. Doctors grade strains — from first degree to third degree — based on how much muscle fiber you've torn.
A muscle strain isn't the same as a muscle sprain. A sprain is an injury to a ligament (the bands that provide stability between your joints). Sprains tend to happen in the ankles, knees, and wrists, whereas strains can happen to any muscle.
In sports, it's possible to pull almost any muscle. The most common sports strains affect the leg or groin muscles, such as the:
There are three types of muscle strains:
Common causes of muscle strains include:
While many different motions can cause you to pull a muscle, there are some specific reasons athletes wind up with strains. These include:
The motions involved in high-impact sports can put you at risk of strained muscles.
For example, a:
Age is also a risk factor since our muscles lose strength and flexibility as we age. Having a previous muscle or tendon injury also makes you more likely to have a re-injury.
Sports specialization can be a risk factor for young athletes. Playing one sport all year round can lead to muscle overuse.
Warming up before physical activity is key to helping prevent muscle strains and other muscle injuries. For example, gentle stretching and light calisthenics can help warm up muscles before a workout. Warm-up activities include jumping jacks, burpees, or jogging in place.
It's also helpful to work on muscle flexibility and strength. Core strength classes, like yoga and Pilates, can help lengthen and strengthen muscles. Weight training (with proper technique) can also help target weak muscles prone to injury.
If you've had a previous muscle injury, ensure you are completely healed before returning to full activity. Physical therapy can be helpful for this. Physical therapists can also suggest activity modifications that don't overtax previously-strained muscles.
Pain is the most common symptom of muscle strain. In fact, for most people, a sudden sensation of tearing or stabbing is the first symptom of something wrong. Unfortunately, there usually aren't warning signs for muscle strains.
When you strain a muscle, you will feel pain at the point of injury. In most cases, you will have pain if you try to move the muscle to its full range.
With more severe sports strains, you may:
If you have severe pain limiting your ability to move, you should see your doctor. You should also see a doctor if the pain doesn't seem to be improving after several days.
Doctors, especially sports medicine doctors, are familiar with the common ways athletes strain muscles. Giving your history and explaining the type of activity you were doing when the pain happened is vital. This history is key for making the right diagnosis and helps your doctor know if they should order imaging tests.
To diagnose a sports strain, your doctor will start by:
Your doctor may order an X-ray to rule out a fracture or dislocation. However, an X-ray can't show muscle injuries. For this, they'll need to do an MRI.
An MRI can see the soft tissue, which can show the extent of the tear to the muscle. It's the only way to accurately tell if there is a rupture.
At UPMC Sports Medicine, our main goals when treating your muscle strain are to help you safely return to sports. We focus on helping you regain strength and flexibility.
You can treat most minor sports strains at home with the R.I.C.E. method:
After you've rested for two or three days, you can begin stretching and limited movements. Work on regaining flexibility in the muscle and then slowly add in strength exercises.
If you have pain, take it easy. You shouldn't be in pain with rehabilitation workouts.