If you’ve ever been doing work in the yard, exercising at the gym or simply lifting a box and felt a sudden painful sensation in your muscle, there’s a good chance you’ve experienced a muscle strain.
Muscles strains typically happen as a result of fatigue, overuse or improper use of a muscle.
While they can occur in any muscle, they typically affect the lower back, hamstring, neck and shoulder muscles.
When you strain your muscle, it’s likely your movement will be restricted within the muscle group that is affected.
If your strain is mild or moderate, you should be able to treat it at home using ice, heat and anti-inflammatory medication; however, more severe strains (or tears) typically need medical attention.
So how do you know when your strain is considered serious enough to see a doctor?
How Do I Know if I Have a Muscle Strain?
If you’ve strained your muscle, you will usually experience a sudden onset of pain in the affected area.
After the initial pain, the strained muscle may feel sore, stiff and weak. It’s also common to notice bruising, muscle spasms and a limited range of movement.
Milder strains will typically cause the muscle to feel stiff, but still flexible enough to use. However, with more severe strains, the muscle is severely torn, which can be very painful and cause movement to be extremely limited.
Mild to moderate strains should heal on their own within a few weeks, while more severe strains can take as much as a few months to fully go away.
How Do I Treat a Muscle Strain?
In most cases, a muscle strain can be treated at home using the RICE method. This stands for rest, ice, compression and elevation.
The best thing you can do after straining a muscle is to rest for at least a few days. This is especially important if moving causes you pain.
After two days, it’s smart to slowly begin moving the impacted area again to prevent weakening of the muscle.
You should also place ice on the affected muscle as soon as possible after your injury to minimize swelling. Be sure to wrap ice in a towel or use an ice pack instead of placing the ice directly on your skin.
The ice should stay on your muscle for about 20 minutes and be repeated hourly for the first day. Ice should also be applied every four hours for the next several days.
In order to keep swelling to a minimum, it’s a good idea to wrap the strained muscle with an elastic bandage until the swelling goes down. Wrapping the area too tightly can reduce circulation of the blood, so be sure you can place a finger underneath the wrap.
Finally, try to elevate the injured muscle as much as possible. This means keeping the muscle above the level of your heart.
An over-the-counter anti-inflammatory medication like ibuprofen can help to keep the pain and swelling down.
Can Muscle Strains Be Prevented?
By practicing some basic precautions, you can greatly reduce your risk of straining a muscle.
- Avoid sitting in one position for too long.
- Find a chair that offers good support for your lower back.
- Practice good posture whenever you sit or stand.
- Always bend at the knees and push with your legs when lifting heavy objects.
- Whenever available, use handrails on stairways.
- Stay off slippery surfaces.
- Maintain a healthy weight.
- Find shoes that fit properly.
Keeping a regular exercise routine can help your muscles stay strong; however, it’s critical that you use proper techniques—whether running, stretching or lifting weights. Spend at least five minutes before your workout to warm up your muscles.
Stretching after you exercise is just as important as the warmup. This helps minimize stiffness in the muscles.
If you’re a beginner when it comes to exercise, don’t overdo it. Knowing your body’s limitations is the best way to prevent a strain.
How Long Does It Take to Recover from a Muscle Strain?
The amount of time it takes to recover from your strain depends on the severity of your injury.
If you’ve experienced a mild strain, you should be able to get back to your normal routine within a few weeks.
However, in more severe cases, it’s possible you could need a few months to recover. By following your doctor’s orders, you should be able to recover completely.
If your doctor has recommended physical therapy to help you heal, it’s critical that you stay with it until your muscles have fully healed.
Do not try to engage in strenuous physical activity until you have been cleared to do so by your doctor.
Should I See a Doctor for a Muscle Strain?
If your strain is mild enough, you should be able to treat it at home using the RICE method.
However, if you notice the pain hasn’t gone away after a week, there is blood coming from the injury or the injured area is numb, you should see a doctor as soon as possible.
You should also seek medical attention immediately if you are unable to walk or move your arms or legs.
Your doctor will most likely want to perform a routine physical exam as well as an imaging test to determine the severity of your injury. This may include an X-ray or an MRI scan.
It is likely you’ll be prescribed an anti-inflammatory medication as well as a pain reliever to help minimize pain and swelling.
You may also be prescribed physical therapy to help the muscle gain back strength and movement.
Your doctor should monitor the injury until you are back to normal. If your injury is severe enough, surgery may be needed to help repair the muscle.
If you believe you’ve suffered a muscle strain, consider visiting your local CareNow®.
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Disclaimer: Patients’ health can vary. Always consult with a medical professional before taking medication, making health-related decisions or deciding if medical advice is right for you.