Anyone living an active lifestyle is bound to pull a muscle eventually. A pulled muscle, or muscle strain, occurs when your muscles are overstretched or overloaded in some way. Maybe you added a couple extra miles to your morning jog, tried out a new HIIT workout, or added more weight to your strength training sets.
Despite a pulled muscle being a frustrating, painful setback, there are ways to keep your fitness routine on track and take care of your body while you nurse the injury. Here’s how.
Immediately stop and rest.
When you pull a muscle, the pain usually comes on sharply, all at once, and in one specific spot. And it’s typically related to larger muscle areas, such as hamstrings, quadriceps, back, and groin. Note: this is different than delayed onset muscle soreness, which is pain or stiffness related to muscle growth as a result of a challenging workout.
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Symptoms of pulled muscles can include soreness or tenderness, muscle spasms, inability to use the muscle at all, and overall weakness with the muscle itself. You may even feel pain without moving the muscle, or increased pain when standing, twisting, or walking.
The American Academy of Orthopedic Surgeons recommends daily stretching in conjunction with exercise to keep your muscles strong and flexible.
Your first step? Stop the movement, and acknowledge the pain level honestly. This is not the time to be a hero; a pulled muscle is an injury, and consequently, your top priority should be dealing with it rather than making it worse. Do not power through your workout or assume it’s fine. The gym isn’t going anywhere, so pay attention to your body when it signals pain.
Try the “I.C.E.” method.
With any injury, most experts recommend the I.C.E. approach: ice, compression, and elevation. Wrap a towel around a bag of ice, use a compression wrap, and try to keep the injured area somewhat raised. All, in addition to rest, can help lower inflammation and keep your blood flowing properly. Studies claim the I.C.E. method won’t “fix” your injury, but it’ll help in the initial hours and days.
While it may seem counterintuitive, stretching a strained muscle only makes it worse. Your best bet involves avoiding any movement that agitates the affected area and continue to rest until the pain subsides. Light stretching can assist with a minor strain, but only if incorporated a few days after the injury occurred.
Watch for bruising or lingering pain.
The vast majority of pulled muscles aren’t serious, but occasionally, severe cases can result in swelling, redness and bruising. If that happens, reach out to your doctor, healthcare provider or physical therapist. Bruising around the muscle or lingering pain past two weeks indicate a deeper injury that could require medical assistance.
The type of injury impacts recovery time.
Strains tend to fall in one of three categories: muscles, tendons, and ligaments. Mild tendon or muscle injuries cause instant pain, a little swelling, and soreness that heals within a week or so. This type of first-degree injury hurts, but you can still move to the muscle to some degree. Second-degree strains involve muscle damage that lasts up to several weeks, and third-degree injuries often result in tendon or ligament issues, where muscle has been pulled off the bone in a full tear—and these often require surgery and months of rehabilitation to repair.
Knowing the type of injury you have can help determine how long you’ll be out for the count in terms of exercise.
Start slow returning to your routine.
After your pulled muscle heals, you’re likely ready to get back at it. However, you’ll need to take workouts very slow initially, because even minor strains can lead to more severe ones later. Reduce the intensity of cardio, lower the amount of weight you lift, and consider starting with yoga or body weight work as a whole.
Let pain be your guide. If the injured area still twinges, stop and go back to square one (rest!). If you’re feeling okay, progressively add more reps, sets, or miles until you gradually return to your usual workout plan and level of intensity.
Take care to prevent pulled muscles in the future.
You’ll also want to think about why the pulled muscle happened in the first place. Is it a muscle imbalance? Did you let your ego get the best of you, and push too hard? Going forward, listening to your body will be key to avoiding pulled muscles whenever possible. Go slow, especially if you’re new to an exercise, and practice good form. Don’t feel guilty about adding rest days to your workout routine, especially when you’re feeling overly tired or worn out.
And keep the word “should” out of your head. Most of us are not professional, competitive athletes, but regular people working out for fun with a commitment to health. Your goal is to feel strong, flexible and agile, so exercising through pain like a pulled muscle or rushing through recovery will only hurt you in the long run.
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