In any sport, at some point, you will hear about an athlete experiencing (or you will experience) what is referred to as a muscle strain, pull, or tear. Muscle injuries are common and can happen to anyone, not just professional athletes. What is the true definition of muscle strain, and how do you know if the pain you might be experiencing is indeed a muscle injury?
A muscle strain is an injury that damages the internal structure of the muscle. It may be small, or it may be severe enough to cause internal bleeding and lengthening of muscle fibers. Muscle strains occur when one or more muscles are stretched beyond their limit or are put in a vulnerable position. When this happens, the muscle tissue becomes strained or torn. Some possible causes include:
- Direct trauma – a fall or hit to the muscle
- Overuse or overloading – too much activity or too much effort in an activity
- Improper warm up – not warming up properly before exerting the muscle group
- Lack of flexibility – overstretching or lengthening a tight muscle
A number of treatments can be used for muscle strain, including the following:
- Acute strains (first 48–72 hours following the straining of the muscle group) – the primary goal should be to decrease pain and inflammation; this can be done with icing, rest, and elevation of the affected area followed by gentle mobility movements. (Note: If you experience excruciating pain and during the original onset felt or heard popping, see a physician immediately.)
- Ice will aid in reducing the swelling and pain. Make sure never to apply ice directly to the skin unless used in ice massage of the muscle. Apply this therapy every 10–15 minutes up to every 1 hour on the first day and about every 4 hours the day after.
- Rest will give the muscle time to heal correctly and is crucial in the initial stage of the strain as well as in the sub-acute stage in which training and use should be based on the muscle’s healing.
- Mobility involves using a gentle range of motion (without creating pain) or lengthening and shortening of the muscle to keep the muscle group from becoming tight and affecting the range of motion to the associated joint structure.
- Subacute strains and beyond (the weeks and months after the initial first 48–72 hours)
- Proper rest is important for muscle strains, which can range from a minor strain to a significant tear or rupture. (If a complete rupture of a muscle occurs, your PCP or MD will determine whether you will need surgical repair of the tissues.) The time of rehab and rest will depend on the degree of the strain, but it is important to let the muscles have the amount of rest necessary for complete healing to prevent possible future re-injuring of the area.
- Soft-tissue techniques such as massage therapy , acupuncture or needling, or joint mobilization incorporate techniques not only decrease the inflammation to the surrounding area but also to promote correct scar tissue formation and can be very beneficial in correct healing of the muscle fibers and function of the muscle itself.
- Local modalities may be used in tissue healing and pain reduction and can include alternating ice/heat therapy, electrotherapy (ultrasound), laser, electrical stimulation, magnetic field therapy, or tens units.
- Exercise can be used after consulting with your PT or ATC for strengthening, proprioceptive retraining, and correcting imbalance of muscle tissues.
If available, other modalities can be used in muscle healing. These are not new in the therapy world, but they are only more recently becoming used by the general public:
- Kinesiotaping is the use of special taping applications that can decrease pain and inflammation and increase flexibility.
- Graston is an instrument-assisted technique that can assist in breaking down scar tissue and fascial restrictions.
To prevent a muscle injury from becoming a chronic or a longstanding issue, take the time to correctly treat and heal the injured muscle or muscles. Keeping your muscles strong yet flexible can decrease your injury potential. Muscles are crucial to sport performance and to your body in general. Take good care of your muscles and your body as a whole—it is the only one you will ever get!
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