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Patient education: Muscle strain (The Basics)

Patient education: Muscle strain (The Basics)

What is a muscle strain? — A muscle strain can happen when a muscle gets stretched too much or too quickly, or works too hard. This sometimes makes the muscle tear. Another term for a muscle strain is a "pulled muscle."

A muscle strain can happen during an accident or exercise. Muscles that are commonly strained include those in the back, neck, and thigh.

What are the symptoms of a muscle strain? — Symptoms happen in the area of the muscle strain and can include:

Pain

Muscle spasm or tightness

Swelling

Bruising

Weakness or being unable to move the muscle

Will I need tests? — Probably not. Your doctor or nurse should be able to tell if you have a muscle strain by learning about your symptoms and doing an exam.

Some people need tests. Depending on your symptoms, your doctor or nurse might order an imaging test such as an ultrasound or MRI scan. Imaging tests create pictures of the inside of the body.

How is a muscle strain treated? — A muscle strain usually gets better on its own, but it can take days to weeks to heal completely.

To help your symptoms get better, you can:

Rest your muscle – Avoid movements or activities that cause pain.

Ice the area – You can put a cold gel pack, bag of ice, or bag of frozen vegetables on the painful muscle every 1 to 2 hours, for 15 minutes each time. Put a thin towel between the ice (or other cold object) and your skin. Use the ice (or other cold object) for at least 6 hours after the injury. Some people find it helpful to ice up to 2 days after an injury.

Wrap your muscle – You can do this using an elastic bandage, other type of wrap, or fabric "sleeve" (picture 1). This helps support your muscle.

Raise the muscle above the level of your heart (if possible) – For example, you can prop your leg up on pillows. This is helpful only for the first few days after an injury.

Take medicine to reduce the pain and swelling – If you have a lot of pain or a severe muscle strain, your doctor will prescribe a strong pain medicine. If your strain is not severe, you can take an over-the-counter medicine such as acetaminophen (sample brand name: Tylenol), ibuprofen (sample brand names: Advil, Motrin), or naproxen (sample brand name: Aleve).

After your pain gets better, your doctor or nurse will recommend that you gently stretch and exercise your muscle. Stretches and exercises can help strengthen your muscles and keep them from getting too stiff. They can also help your joints stay flexible.

Your doctor or nurse will show you stretches and exercises to do. Or they will have you work with a physical therapist (exercise expert).

It's important to let your muscle heal before you play sports or do other activities that use the muscle again. If you don't let your muscle heal, you are likely to injure it again.

Can a muscle strain be prevented? — You can help prevent a muscle strain by taking time to warm up your muscles before you exercise. You can do this by walking or doing another light activity. If you are not sure how to warm up before exercising, ask your doctor, nurse, or physical therapist.

What problems should I watch for? — Call your doctor or nurse for advice if:

You can't move your injured muscle because of the pain.

The pain or swelling becomes worse.

You keep straining the same muscle.

You have new symptoms, or your symptoms are getting worse.

More on this topic

Patient education: Muscle and bone pain – Discharge instructions (The Basics)
Patient education: Exercise and movement (The Basics)
Patient education: Neck pain (The Basics)
Patient education: Whiplash (The Basics)
Patient education: Low back pain in adults (The Basics)
Patient education: Knee pain (The Basics)
Patient education: Hip pain in adults (The Basics)
Patient education: Nonsteroidal antiinflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) (The Basics)
Patient education: Giving your child over-the-counter medicines (The Basics)
Patient education: Groin strain (The Basics)
Patient education: Hamstring injury (The Basics)

Patient education: Knee pain (Beyond the Basics)
Patient education: Low back pain in adults (Beyond the Basics)
Patient education: Neck pain (Beyond the Basics)
Patient education: Nonsteroidal antiinflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) (Beyond the Basics)

This topic retrieved from UpToDate on: Jun 02, 2024.
Disclaimer: This generalized information is a limited summary of diagnosis, treatment, and/or medication information. It is not meant to be comprehensive and should be used as a tool to help the user understand and/or assess potential diagnostic and treatment options. It does NOT include all information about conditions, treatments, medications, side effects, or risks that may apply to a specific patient. It is not intended to be medical advice or a substitute for the medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment of a health care provider based on the health care provider's examination and assessment of a patient's specific and unique circumstances. Patients must speak with a health care provider for complete information about their health, medical questions, and treatment options, including any risks or benefits regarding use of medications. This information does not endorse any treatments or medications as safe, effective, or approved for treating a specific patient. UpToDate, Inc. and its affiliates disclaim any warranty or liability relating to this information or the use thereof. The use of this information is governed by the Terms of Use, available at https://www.wolterskluwer.com/en/know/clinical-effectiveness-terms. 2024© UpToDate, Inc. and its affiliates and/or licensors. All rights reserved.
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