Muscle Strains 101
Updated: Mar 8
What is a Muscle Strain?
A muscle strain - or a pulled muscle, as it is sometimes more commonly known as - is a stretching or tearing of muscle fibres. Muscle strains often occur due to one of two common reasons. These are either that the muscle has been stretched beyond its limits, or the muscle has been forced to contract too strongly. The muscle may also be strained due to fatigue, overuse, or improper use. Strains can happen to any muscle, but they are most common in the lower back, neck, shoulders, and hamstrings.
In more mild cases, only a few muscle fibres are stretched or torn, and the muscle remains intact and strong. However, in more severe cases, the strained muscle may be torn to the extent that the muscle is unable to function properly. To help classify the severity of a strain, it is classified as one of three different grades.
If you are suffering from a muscle strain, you may experience muscle pain and tenderness when you move the muscle and get relief when it is rested, swelling, cramps or spasm, and a reduction in muscle strength or complete loss of function.
What causes a muscle strain?
Muscle strains can be characterised as either acute or chronic, and the way in which the strain occurs is how they are defined.
An acute strain is due to a quick, uncontrolled movement that can happen when you slip over, jump, run, throw something, or lift something heavy or in an awkward position. These acute injuries are somewhat more common in colder weather, as our muscles are stiffer in lower temperatures.
Chronic muscle strains are a result of repetitive movement. They often occur as a result of holding your back or neck in an awkward position for long periods of time, poor posture, or during sports that require repetitive movements like rowing, tennis, or golf.
What are the different grades of muscle strains? What do they mean?
There are three grades of muscle strains. These grades help to determine the severity of the muscle strain.
Grade I strain: The mildest form of muscle strain. Only a few muscle fibres are stretched or torn. Although the injured muscle is tender and painful, there is no reduction in muscle length or strength.
Grade II strain: A moderate strain. A greater number of fibres are injured and more severe muscle pain and tenderness is experienced. There is often also mild swelling, noticeable loss of strength, and sometimes a bruise.
Grade III strain: Most severe strain. The strain tears the muscle all the way through, sometimes causing a “pop” sensation or sound as the muscle rips. Complete loss of muscle function is present, as well as considerable pain, swelling, tenderness, and discolouration.
How can muscle strains be treated?
Initial treatment plans are to follow the RICE rule.
REST the injured muscle – temporary break from sports and activities is advised.
ICE the injured area to reduce swelling.
COMPRESS the muscle with an elastic bandage or tubigrip.
ELEVATE the injured area to help with swelling.
For Grade I and Grade II strains, once the initial inflammatory process has occurred, and RICE has been carried out, Physiotherapists can assist with rehabilitation programs and treatment to help return the muscle to its normal function, and to also further strengthen and lengthen the muscles to prevent a muscle strain from reoccurring.
Recovery from a muscle strain is dependent on the location and severity of the muscle strain. In most cases, Grade I strains heal within a few weeks, whereas Grade II strains may take two to three months, or longer.
After surgery to repair a Grade III strain, most people achieve normal muscle function after a few months of rehabilitation.
How can they be prevented?
In order to prevent muscle strains from occurring, it is very important to warm up appropriately prior to participating in any sporting activity. It is also important to regularly complete an exercise program aimed at strength and flexibility, increase intensity of training gradually, maintain a healthy body weight, practice good posture when you are sitting and standing, and use the correct technique when lifting heavy loads. Also, as acute muscle strains are more common in the colder weather, it is especially important to take extra time to warm up in these conditions.