Key Points about Muscle Strains

  • Muscle strains occur when excessive pressure is put on the muscle, causing the muscle to overstretch or tear. 
  • Symptoms of muscle strain include pain and limited mobility of the affected muscle.
  • Mild to moderate muscle strains can be treated at home with rest, ice, compression and elevation. 
  • To prevent muscle strains, exercise regularly to promote muscle health and strength, warm up properly before exercising, wear proper footwear, and maintain good posture.

Overview

A muscle strain is an overstretched or torn muscle. Muscle strains, or pulled muscles, occur when excessive pressure is put on the muscle, whether during exercise or normal daily activities. Common causes of strain include overuse, fatigue, or improper use of the muscle. Strains often occur in the lower back, neck, shoulder, and hamstring. 

Symptoms of muscle strain include pain and limited mobility of the affected muscle. Most muscle strains heal on their own within a few weeks, but more serious strains may take several months to fully heal. If you have a muscle strain with intense pain, or that does not improve on its own, your doctor can recommend medical treatment. 

Muscle strain causes

Muscle strains, pulls, or tears are caused by putting excessive pressure on a muscle, whether during exercise or normal daily activities. 

Muscle strains can be acute or chronic. Acute muscle strains occur when the muscle tears suddenly, from an injury or trauma, such as by:

  • Jumping
  • Slipping and losing your footing
  • Running
  • Throwing something
  • Lifting something heavy, or while in an awkward position

Chronic muscle strains result from long-term, repetitive movements. Causes of chronic muscle strain may include:

  • Poor posture
  • Playing sports such as tennis, golf, baseball, or rowing
  • Spending long periods of time with your neck or back in an awkward position, such as while working at a desk

Muscle strain risk factors

Acute muscle strains are more likely to occur if you:

  • Do not warm up correctly before physical activity
  • Play contact sports such as soccer, football, or wrestling
  • Have poor flexibility
  • Are fatigued
  • Are exercising or moving around in cold weather

Muscle strain symptoms

Symptoms of muscle strain include:

  • Swelling, bruising, or redness
  • Pain at rest, and when the muscle in question is being used
  • Weakness of the muscle or inability to use it altogether
  • Soreness
  • Limited mobility of the muscle
  • Muscle spasms
  • Stiffness or weakness in the muscle

Muscle strain prevention

There are measures you can take to lower your risk of straining a muscle. To prevent acute muscle strains:

  • Maintain good posture while lifting objects by bending at the knees, keeping a straight back, and lifting with your legs instead of your back
  • Lose weight if you are overweight
  • Wear properly fitting shoes
  • Exercise regularly to promote muscle health and strength
  • Warm up and stretch properly before and after exercising, particularly in cold weather
  • Stop a physical activity if it feels painful or overly challenging

To prevent chronic strains:

  • Avoid sitting in a single position for too long
  • If you sit for long periods of time, choose a chair with good lower back support
  • Try to keep good posture while sitting and standing

Muscle strain diagnosis

Your doctor will conduct a physical examination to assess the extent of the injury and may order imaging tests such as MRI scans and X-rays. 

Muscle strain treatment

Most muscle strains can be treated at home by:

  • Resting
  • Icing, compressing, and elevating the affected area
  • Taking anti-inflammatory medicines and pain relievers

Your doctor may also recommend physical therapy exercises to strengthen the affected muscle and restore mobility. In rare cases, the muscle may need surgery to be repaired. 

When to seek care

Call your doctor if:

  • Pain persists past one week
  • You have numbness in the affected area
  • You are bleeding from the injury
  • You are unable to walk, or to move your arms or legs

Next Steps

Call your doctor if your pain is significant, and if rest and home remedies to not decrease pain.