*Hey guys, a little disclaimer first: I am NOT a medical professional. I am just a dude who studied bodies, movements and sports injuries in college and now is a professional weightlifter. While I certainly think my advice is good, it cannot be construed as medical advice, nor should it replace talking to a physician. I cannot be held liable for any outcomes from the following article.
A pulled muscle, also called a strain, is when an injury occurs to a muscle or tendon where the muscle fibers tear due to over stretching. They can happen doing every day activities and are usually a result of muscles not being properly being warmed up. While this is not limited to athletes, a strain is more common with athletes due to the increase in muscle size. There are three grades for a strain based on how they feel at the time of the injury. A Grade I Strain usually results in mild discomfort but does not limit the activity. These often occur at times and feel like a “tweak”. A Grade II Strain will leave you with moderate discomfort. This can hinder your ability to perform some activities and swelling/bruising may be present at the site of the injury. A Grade III Strain is considered the worst, with high levels of pain, swelling, and significant bruising. Muscle spasms can also occur in the affected area.
Regardless of your level of training, a muscle strain is bound to happen. They are avoidable with proper warm ups and prehab exercises and you can go through most of your training life with out pulling a muscle, but it is highly unlikely that will happen. The reason for this is if you push yourself hard at any point during training you will push a little bit past your body’s comfort zone and that’s when you pull something. In my opinion, low and mid-level strains are not a big deal and will go away quickly if you deal with them immediately. The only time you would miss training or be limited in your activities is when discoloration and swelling occurs.
The most important aspect of healing a muscle pull is blood flow. The more blood flow you can get to the area, the better a chance you have to heal in a timely fashion. While icing has been shown to help with swelling and inflammation, it can slow down the blood flow to that area. Instead try using heat via a heat pack or a hot towel. When applied to the area, heat can increase circulation and get the healing process started. Massage is another great way to introduce fresh blood to an injured area. Whether it’s your significant other, a trained professional, car polisher or lacrosse ball, don’t get picky, just get something working in the area and jumpstart the healing process. Lastly, depending on where the injury has occurred, I am a big proponent of compression, or Voodoo flossing. During the compression process, there is limited blood flow to the area, but when the compression is released, fresh blood will rush back into the area and you will be amazed at how much better the injury feels. These are the most cost effective methods of offering immediate relief to the injured area. If you have access to one, an E-stim unit is a more effective, yet costly method of promoting healing. This unit uses electric pulses and gets the blood flowing in the area where the pads have been placed. Using any of these methods 3-4 times a day for 2-3 days should help alleviate the symptoms of all Grade I, Grade II, and some Grade III Strains.
After you have implemented some of the immediate modalities to provide relief, there are other methods you can try to relieve the discomfort. One of the most common recommendations is to take an NSAID (non steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs). These are more commonly known as acetaminophen, ibuprofen, and aspirin. You can get these at any drug store. Another method of recovery that I feel is underused and under-appreciated is active recovery. If the strain does not severely limit activity, running it through some light repetitive movements can help warm up the desired area and get blood flowing to the site of injury.
A Grade III Strain is the only type of strain where I recommend avoidance of activities. You need to use your judgement when assessing what you can and cannot due in regards to training. If after a week of little to no improvement with your strain, I would recommend going and seeing a physician. If the bruising or swelling gets worse or stays the same you could have a complete muscle or tendon tear and professional help may be needed. From there you may need an MRI to determine further damage and, depending on the extent of damage. there are a variety of treatment options (physical therapy, surgery, etc). As stated before, you need to be smart about these types of things and do take the necessary steps to recovering properly and getting you back in the gym. There are no awards for being stubborn and putting off what needs to be done.
Strains vary from mild to severe. Generally speaking, you will experience them on occasion, and can use a few simple tricks to heal quickly at home. Be sure to pay attention to what your body is telling you so you heal quickly and fully.