A tip-off that you have a muscle strain versus an injury in a joint is that the middle of a limb is where the discomfort is; or, the aching, tenderness or pain is not at a joint itself, but away from it.
This means that something is going on with the muscle tissue, rather than with tendons, ligaments or cartilage.
Different things can happen to muscle tissue. Athletes and physique building enthusiasts are very familiar with what can happen to muscle in the course of training: strains, pulls, stiffness, tightness, soreness, and the ugliest of them all, an actual muscle tear that requires surgery.
Muscle injuries can be acute (sudden, the instantaneous result of trauma) or develop over time (chronic) from repeating the offending activity—such as deep heavy squats antagonizing a quadriceps muscle.
A bodybuilder or fitness athlete sooner or later will experience muscle strains. A strain means just that: strained tissue; the tissue is damaged but not torn (severed) or ripped apart.
Weight lifting causes microscopic tears, and muscle strains do involve more pronounced degrees of microscopic tears. Most people intuitively can identify when they’ve suffered a strained muscle versus a fatigued or sore muscle.
Symptoms Of Muscle Strains Or “Pulls” (Only One Of These Symptoms May Be Present):
- Pain or discomfort that feels more than just mere soreness or fatigue
- Pain or discomfort even when the muscle is at rest
- Increased pain when the muscle performs the offending activity or even similar activities
- Pain and stiffness when the muscle is stretched within normal range of motion
- In more severe cases, there is swelling, redness, bruising, weakness and/or inability to use the muscle.
How To Heal A Pulled Muscle
If there’s swelling or puffiness, do not apply heat. The swelling is the body’s natural response to an injury.
During this time, apply ice for 15-20 minutes, never longer, and let at least two hours pass between ice applications. Three times a day is the minimum, and more icing is better as long as you stick to the two hour rule.
A good ice pack works, but for a much better effect, fill a sealable sandwich bag with ice cubes or crushed ice (better yet), and add a little water to give the bag some malleability so that it contours to your skin. The added water will intensify the chill, and the chill will last all throughout the 15-20 minutes.
This method will provide a pretty good initial jolt of cold, but after several minutes your skin will start getting numb. Keep the muscle in a stretched position if possible while the ice pack is on it.
Only when the swelling goes down should you apply heat, which can be from a hot water bottle. If the bottle is too hot, place a towel between it and your skin, but make sure it lets a good amount of heat penetrate.
Non-steroidal, anti-inflammatory drugs (known as NSAIDs) can be taken. These include ibuprofen and aspirin, and will help relieve pain and inflammation.
The issue with these drugs is that they may suppress the pain so well that the trainee ends up believing that there has been much more muscle healing than what’s actually taken place.
This false sense of healing then encourages the athlete to resume the offending activity prematurely, which then further damages the muscle tissue. Watch out for pain relievers working too well; a person needs to be aware of pain as a way of protecting against further injury.
It’s critical that one avoid the offending activity at full throttle until the injury is pretty much healed.
Too much rest can be harmful as well; go about normal daily activities to keep the muscle from getting stiff, and to keep circulation going in it. At some point as the muscle continues to progress with recovery, the offending activity can be resumed with very light weights or light intensity to reintroduce the muscle to exercise.
For example, in the case of a pulled hamstring, the trainee can gradually resume jogging or deadlifting, but at a much lower intensity to allow muscle healing to continue without interruption.
Whether the trainee rests completely or is in a reintroduction stage, the injured area should also be elevated when the athlete is relaxing before the TV or reading.
Another healing tool is that of wrapping the area with an Ace bandage.
This is easy to do if the area of concern is in the leg or arm, though obviously not practical if the strained muscle is in the back or chest. Don’t wrap too tightly.
Finally, do gentle stretching. Don’t over-stretch and don’t bounce. Passively elongate the muscle and hold for 20-30 seconds a few times, but not to the point of pain.
Never stretch a “cold” muscle. The best time to stretch it is after it’s been warmed with physical activity such as a brisk walk, or after using a heating pad.
When To See A Doctor
If the injury debilitates you from normal activity, see a sports medicine physician.
Another cause for concern is if there’s substantial swelling, spasms or fever (which indicates infection). These can be signs of torn muscles.
The pain being persistent and nagging even during rest is another sign to see a physician. This isn’t the same as soreness, and the workout enthusiast will know the difference.
As nasty as soreness can be, it’s tolerable and doesn’t have that “pain” or worrisome aspect to it, that torn muscles will have.
If the home treatment methods that have already been described don’t promote healing, see a doctor to rule out a complete or partial tear (not the same as microscopic tears).
Torn muscle treatment doesn’t always require surgery, but it does require a doctor’s care and it’s more extensive than the home treatment described prior.
What About A Massage Therapist?
Don’t count this option out. In the case of a muscle that has not been torn, a massage therapist can work wonders.
The cause of pain may be due to “knots” and scar tissue buildup in the muscle belly as well as at insertion points, and a number of deep tissue massages can actually break up the hardened regions of tissue and restore comfortable functioning to the muscle.
This takes time and isn’t cheap, but it may be the only recourse if everything else has failed.
What About Foam Rollers?
Rolling the injured muscle on top of a foam roller can go a long way in the healing process, but the caveat is that this won’t work if the injured area is in an awkward rolling location, such as the shoulder or back.
Foam rolling acts like a massage therapist and helps work out the scar tissue and knots. Most gyms have foam rollers.
Muscle strains come with the territory of bodybuilding and physique building. They demand a break from the offending activity and will not adequately heal if you attempt to “work through” the pain.
A strained muscle is not the same as a tired or sore muscle. To minimize injuries, always be well-hydrated, and never, ever stretch cold muscles.
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