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Sports & Muscle Strains Causes, Symptoms, and Treatments

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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What Are Muscle Strains?

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.

What Are the Types of Muscle Strains?

In sports, it's possible to pull almost any muscle. The most common sports strains affect the leg or groin muscles, such as the:

  • Quadriceps — the muscle in the front of your thigh.
  • Hamstring — the muscle in the back of your thigh.

There are three types of muscle strains:

  • Mild muscle strain, or grade 1. With this type of strain, you have slight damage to your muscle fibers. You usually have only a minimal loss of strength or range of motion.
  • Moderate muscle strain, or grade 2. This type of strain affects more muscle fibers than a mild one. It's likely more painful, with a more significant loss of range of motion.
  • Severe muscle strain, or grade 3. A severe strain can mean a complete rupture of a muscle or tendon. If it's severe enough, it can require surgery.

What Causes Muscle Strains?

Common causes of muscle strains include:

  • Playing sports.
  • Pushing or pulling something heavy.
  • Exercising.
  • Falling.

While many different motions can cause you to pull a muscle, there are some specific reasons athletes wind up with strains. These include:

  • Having generally tight muscles — especially combined with a lack of strength in the muscle. In other words, you've pushed a muscle lacking in flexibility and strength too far.
  • Overusing the same muscle or muscle groups. Bending, leaping, gripping, or twisting in the same way, over and over, can strain a muscle or tendon.
  • Not warming up or doing too much too fast. You are more likely to injure cold muscles because they are tighter. But loading a muscle too fast can also lead to injury.

What Are the Risk Factors and Complications of Muscle Strains?

The motions involved in high-impact sports can put you at risk of strained muscles.

For example, a:

  • Groin strain can come from quick, side-to-side motions.
  • Thigh muscle strain often happens when you suddenly speed up or slow down while running.

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.

How Do You Prevent Muscle Strains?

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.

What Are the Symptoms of Muscle Strains?

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:

  • Not be able to move the limb.
  • Have swelling or bruising around the injury, which may appear as late as a few days after straining the muscle.

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.

How Do You Diagnose Muscle Strains?

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:

  • Assessing the painful area around the sprained muscle.
  • Testing your strength.
  • Checking your flexibility.

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.

How Are Muscle Strains Treated?

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.

At-home Muscle Strain Treatment

You can treat most minor sports strains at home with the R.I.C.E. method:

  • Rest — rest for a couple of days after the injury to allow your muscle to repair.
  • Ice — apply ice for about 15 minutes every hour or two.
  • Compression — use a compression wrap or compression shorts to help relieve muscle pain.
  • Elevation — keep the injured limb elevated for the first few days to reduce swelling.

Muscle Strain Rehabilitation and Stretching

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.

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