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How To Treat a Pulled Muscle

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Updated April 02, 2014

A muscle strain, also called a pulled muscle, occurs when a muscle is stretched too far, and small tears occur within the muscle. Muscle strain injuries are graded by severity:
  • Grade I: Mild discomfort, often no disability. Usually does not limit activity.

  • Grade II: Moderate discomfort, can limit ability to perform high level activities. May have moderate swelling and bruising associated.

  • Grade III: Severe injury that can cause significant pain. Often patients complain of muscle spasm, swelling, and significant bruising.
Difficulty: Average
Time Required: Depends on the severity of the injury

Here's How:

  1. Rest:
    Rest is recommended for the early recovery phase, lasting 1 to 5 days depending on the severity of the injury. Immobilization is not usually necessary, and can be potentially harmful. Immobilization in a splint or cast should be carefully supervised by your doctor, as this can lead to stiffness of the muscle.

  2. Ice:
    Ice application helps reduce swelling, bleeding, and pain. Ice application should begin as soon as possible after sustaining a muscle pull. Ice applications can be done frequently, but should not be done for more than 15 minutes at a time.

  3. Anti-Inflammatory Medications:
    Anti-inflammatory medications can help reduce swelling and alleviate painful symptoms. These medications do have potential side effects, and you should check with your doctor prior to starting anti-inflammatory medications.

  4. Gentle Stretching:
    Stretching and strengthening are useful in treatment and prevention of muscle strain injuries. Muscles that are stronger and more flexible are less likely to be injured.

  5. Strengthening:
    After injuring the muscle, it is important to regain strength before returning to athletic activities. Both the injury itself and the rest period following the injury can reduce the strength of the muscle. Stronger muscles are less likely to sustain a re-injury.

  6. Heat Applications:
    Laboratory studies have shown that temperature can influence the stiffness of a muscle. By keeping the body and muscles warm, the muscle is less likely to sustain a strain type of injury.

  7. Avoid Muscle Fatigue:
    Muscles help absorb energy, and restoring the strength of the muscle will help prevent re-injury. Muscles that are fatigued are more likely to be injured. Athletes should use caution, especially as they become fatigued, as the muscle becomes more susceptible to strain injuries.

  8. Warm-Up Properly:
    Warming up prior to athletic competition or sports will help loosen the muscle and prevent injuries. Jumping into a sport with stiff muscles can lead to a higher chance of straining the muscle.

  9. Sources:

    Mair S, et al. The role of fatigue in susceptibility to acute muscle strain injury. Am J Sports Med 1996,24:137-43.

    Noonan TJ, and Garrett WE, "Muscle strain injury: diagnosis and treatment" J. Am. Acad. Ortho. Surg., Jul 1999; 7: 262 - 269.

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