Ouch! – What to do when you Pull a Muscle

Muscle Pull

Muscle Pull


What Happens When You Pull A Muscle?

A pulled muscle is just another way to describe a muscle strain. Muscle strains are painful.  Muscle strains occur when a muscle or tendon is overstretched or torn. A torn muscle is graded by 3 degrees. Mild, moderate, and complete tear. Muscle strains can occur without warning and affect people of all ages and fitness levels. Because these types of injuries can range in severity, you should see your doctor right away if you:

  • Are in a significant amount of pain
  • Cannot walk
  • Heard a popping sound when the injury occurred
  • Have a fever
  • Have broken skin at the injury site
  • Have major swelling of the injured area

Properly treating a muscle strain can be complex. I always recommend having a thorough exam from a movement specialist, like a PT to diagnose the severity of muscle strain AND identify the root cause.

If you only have mild discomfort, you may be able to treat the pulled muscle at home. However, you should consult with your doctor if you still have pain after 24 hours of at-home treatment.

Signs You Have a Muscle Strain

Muscle strains are most common in the hamstrings, lower back, shoulders and neck. Symptoms of a pulled muscle include:

  • Bruising, swelling or redness at the injury site
  • Difficulty using the affected muscle
  • Muscle weakness
  • Sudden pain when using the affected muscle
  • Pain when the muscle is stretched or contracted

What Causes Muscle Strains?

Muscle strains can be caused by:

  • Lifting an object that is too heavy
  • Lifting improperly
  • Not warming up before or stretching after a workout
  • Overusing a muscle
  • Poor posture

How to Treat a Pulled Muscle

Once the diagnosis has been confirmed, it is usually managed with anti-inflammatories, muscle relaxers, and targeted physical therapy. Using heating pads and ice packs have also been shown to be beneficial.

Your doctor may recommend the following at-home treatments:

  • Rest. Rest the muscle for a few days or until your doctor gives you the okay. If you had a minor muscle strain, you should be able to do some gentle movement after two days.
  • Ice. Apply ice to the injury for 20 minutes each hour you’re awake. Ice can help reduce inflammation. Never apply ice directly to bare skin; instead, wrap the ice pack in a towel first.
  • Compression. Wrapping the muscle with an elastic bandage can help bring down swelling. Avoid wrapping it too tightly or your muscle won’t get enough blood circulation.
  • Elevation. Elevate the injured muscle to reduce swelling.
  • Medication. Your physician may recommend a nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory medication, like ibuprofen, to reduce pain and swelling.
  • Heat. Use a heating pad a few times a day after three days. Never apply heat directly to bare skin; always wrap the heating pad in a towel.

These treatments are helpful up to the first week. After that, getting targeted physical therapy will help speed up recovery and lower the chances of doing it again.

This is done by using a combination of hands on stretching, massage, myofasical release, instrument assisted soft tissue mobilization, cupping, trigger point dry needling to relax tense muscles and improve painfree length. The PT will also prescribe exercises to help maintain the benefits of hands on treatment and dose the exercises to keep them painfree and productive.

How to Prevent a Pulled Muscle

Pulled muscles can be prevented by utilizing proper lifting technique and warming up properly before exercising. Because there is no perfect warm up routine for every movement, you must be able to understand what movements will be necessary and how to warm them up safely and productively. This complexity is why active people who do warm up will still pull muscles.

Check out more health tips from Preferred Physical Therapy experts.

If you are in the Peoria, Glendale, or Phoenix area and want to have a thorough exam like was mentioned above, book a discovery session to see if that will be right for you.



Nick Hunter, PT, DPT

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