A muscle strain occurs when muscle fibres are damaged. This can happen when the muscle is either stretched or torn. As tendons are an integral part of muscles, strains may also involve damage to tendons, and it is the area of muscle which attaches to the tendon which is most often affected by strain injuries. Sometimes, strains may be referred to as a ‘pulled muscle’.
Excessive forces or stresses on a muscle often result in a strain. This happens in a variety of situations, including sporting injuries, a fall, a sudden quick movement or lifting a heavy object. Occasionally, repeated coughing can also strain muscles in the rib cage.
Strains can affect almost every muscle in the body. Common areas affected are muscles in the calf, groin, back and neck. A strain affecting the back or neck may lead to lower back pain or stiffness.
Strains affecting the muscles at a joint such as the ankle may also be associated with damage to the ligaments – this is known as a sprain.
In general, a sprain damages the ligaments of a joint, while strains cause damage to the muscle. Muscles and ligaments are inter-dependent in forming the structure of many joints. Injuries to the ankle, knee or wrist may result in both strains and sprains. This is the reason the terms are often seen together.
Your muscles work together to provide support, strength and flexibility. Many of the structures of the body, such as the neck, have a wide range of movement. However, this makes these joints more susceptible to injury. Often muscle strain is caused by sudden jerking movements, movements which are outwith the comfortable range of the joint, or excessive repetitive stress to a muscle. This means that many strains occur during sporting activities when the body is being pushed to its limit.
Many people return to a high level of activity too quickly after a muscle strain. The muscle will be too weak to maintain the same level of stress, meaning that the injury is likely to recur. To ensure that your muscle can return to its full strength and mobility as quickly as possible, it is important to give yourself adequate recovery time.
Muscle strains can also be caused by some health conditions:
- Excessive coughing can strain muscles in the chest wall. You may notice this as pain on coughing or when taking very deep breaths and areas of your chest wall can be tender to touch. Occasionally, coughs can also strain abdominal muscles
- If you are constipated, straining when opening your bowels can also lead to muscle strains
Typical symptoms of a muscle strain include:
- Pain at rest, or when using the muscle
- Stiffness of the joint (because pain limits the way the muscle works)
- Bruising, which if severe, may lead to swelling
Severe swelling to the injured area or an abnormal appearance or deformity of the injured muscle can indicate a more severe condition such as a muscle tear. If you notice these symptoms, or if you have severe uncontrolled pain, seek medical help immediately.
If you are able to, treat the muscle strain immediately after the injury. This can help reduce the symptoms experienced whilst you recover from your muscle injury.
- Rest and stop the activity which has caused the muscle strain
- Use a cold compress to the injured area
- If possible, elevate the part of body affected
A simple way of applying a cold compress is to use a packet of frozen peas. Continuing this treatment for 48 hours after injury can help recovery. Pain-killers (either taken by mouth or in the form of creams or gels) can be used to control pain and inflammation.
For those who prefer the use of herbal remedies, Arnica gel can provide pain relief following muscle strains – both in the acute and recovery phases. It can also help resolve bruising which is common with such injuries.