A pulled or “strained” muscle is muscle damage caused by overstretching or by putting sudden or extensive pressure on a muscle when executing a movement. A pulled muscle can occur while doing any daily activity as a result of excess fatigue or overuse, during sports activities that incorporate explosive movements, or when you suddenly or improperly attempt to lift something heavy.
When in the moment, a pulled muscle can be quite painful, but the pain or discomfort should subside in about 24 hours. In this article, we explain how to self-diagnose and treat a strained or pulled muscle. If the solutions we provide below don’t bring any relief, you could be experiencing a ligament sprain or, even something more serious, a muscle or ligament tear. In this case, we advise that you call your doctor immediately.
Pulled muscle symptoms and treatment
When you pull a muscle, you’ll notice immediate pain, often coming after you feel a sensation similar to a spasm or as if you stretched a resistance band very quickly then released it. Other muscle strain symptoms include:
- Muscle spasm
- Redness and bruising
- Limited flexibility
- Pain when at rest or when using the specific muscle
- Weakness in that area of the body, especially around the joint
If the pain lasts for more than 24 hours, call your doctor to make sure you’re not suffering from a sprain or tear — both of which may require more extensive treatment like a brace or splint.
After you pull a muscle, immediately turn to the R.I.C.E method of recovery: rest, ice, compress and elevate. Take a break from the exercise, movement or activity that caused your muscle strain, then ice the area for 10-minute intervals as often as necessary. After icing, compress the area using an ace bandage or another kind of wrap to prevent swelling. Finally, do your best to elevate the area to reduce any throbbing sensations and decrease the likelihood of bruising.
Other pulled muscle treatment methods include:
- Keep the strained muscle in a stretched position, but don’t do extensive stretching routines
- When the swelling dies down, heat can be applied to relax the muscle
- Take nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (e.g. ibuprofen) if cleared by your doctor to do so
- Protecting the area using a splint, wrap or other tools to avoid further injury
Strain recovery for each muscle group
No matter the muscle, recovery methods for a strain are quite similar. Always follow the R.I.C.E technique, seeking advice from a doctor if the pain lingers. Below, you’ll find different tips, pointers and precautions related to various muscle groups.
How to recover from a pulled thigh muscle
The thigh comprises major muscle groups including the quadriceps in the front, hamstrings in the back and adductors on the inside of the thigh. The quadriceps and hamstrings work together to help straighten and bend the leg at the knee, while the adductors keep the legs pulling towards the center. These muscles are all susceptible to muscle pulls and strains as they are used for high-speed activities like running, plyometrics, basketball, soccer and more. It’s worth being aware that your rectus femoris hip flexor — which is the fourth important muscle of the quadriceps — can become easily strained when executing plyometric activities, such as jumping or sprinting.
If you pull a thigh muscle, rest, ice, compress and elevate your leg. In this case, it’s also the one time we’ll advise taking the escalator or elevator instead of the stairs to prevent added strain on those muscles.
Treating a pulled muscle in arm or shoulder
It’s possible to pull arm and shoulder muscles like the deltoids, biceps and triceps. These muscle strains can occur during sports, when you try to catch yourself from falling, or when you lift something like a heavy box or child.
To identify which arm muscle you pulled, gently move your arm around. If you senses pain when you move your upper arm, the deltoid might be your problem area. If you strained one of your bicep muscles, you’ll feel pain in the front of your arm or shoulder when you extend the arm out straight or lift it above shoulder-level. If one of your tricep muscles is strained, you’ll feel pain behind your arm when you bend your elbow. To recover from any of these pulled muscles, practice the R.I.C.E. method first, then refrain from lifting heavy objects or doing exercises that require your arms.
How to treat a strained calf muscle
Calf strains often occur after a sudden pushing off movement or from over-stretching at the ankle. Over-stretching happens during jumping movements or quick changes in direction. Those with shortened, tight calf muscles are extra susceptible to injury (i.e. people who wear heels, runners, cyclists), which is why stretching is so important.
After resting, icing, compressing and elevating, the pain should start to subside. Once it does, incorporate regular calf stretches or foam rolling into your routine.
Pulled back muscle treatment
Pulling back muscles is very uncomfortable and needs to be treated with special care. Like any other muscle strains, you should rest and ice the area. However, you might find it more difficult to compress and elevate, so anti-inflammatory pain medications could be helpful.
To recover, modify your activities for a few days, avoid heavy lifting, and reduce stiffness by going for frequent walks — even just five minutes every few hours. When the inflammation (or pain) is mostly gone, relaxing in a warm bath is always a good idea.
How long does it take for a pulled muscle to heal?
As we mentioned above, it often takes 24 hours to recover from a pulled muscle. To prevent further injury, it’s best to rest the area for 2-3 days following the strain. If the pain lingers or gets worse, talk to your doctor.
How to prevent pulled muscles in the future
There are many ways to pull a muscle – not just in sports or exercise, but daily life too. Maybe you tried to pick something heavy up too quickly, maybe you pushed a little too hard in your workout, or maybe you performed a movement with improper form. To prevent pulled muscles or muscle strains in the future, always practice good form when exercising and lifting heavy objects. Engage your core, keep your straight back and drive the power through your legs. Doing a proper warm up before any strenuous workout is always smart. Listen to your body and take rest days if your muscles are tired.
To learn proper exercise form, sign up for 8fit and browse our exercise library. Exercises are demonstrated by coaches in video form and include a step-by-step list as well.