Most of us have gotten a muscle strain at some point. Maybe we pushed ourselves too hard, or didn’t stretch enough, or it was purely an accident. Most of these muscle strains are mild and get better in a few days. Some don’t, however, and can cause pain and dysfunction if not handled properly.
What is a muscle strain?
A muscle strain is an injury to a muscle usually caused by being overloaded with tension or stretch. In other words, if a muscle is working too hard or stretching too far, it can fail and get injured.
There are three grades of severity for a muscle strain, which tell us the extent of the damage to the muscle and what to expect in terms of recovery:
- Grade I: Mild strain, meaning you have stretched or torn some of the muscle’s fibres, but the muscle’s function is still intact. You will still be able to use the muscle, but it will be painful.
- Grade II: Moderate strain, where up to half of the muscle fibres have been overstretched or torn. There is usually swelling and/or bruising that occurs with this injury. The muscle will be in a great deal of pain and strength will be affected.
- Grade III: Severe strain/tear, where the muscle or tendon has completely torn into two parts. There will be a significant amount of pain, swelling, and bruising, and the muscle will not be able to contract.
Common muscle strains
Certain muscles are at a greater risk of being injured. Here are some examples of commonly strained muscles:
- 2-Joint muscles: Some muscles, like the hamstrings or the calf muscles, act on two joints when they contract. In the picture below, you can see that the gastrocnemius (the calf muscle) crosses both the knee and the ankle. During certain activities where both joints are moving at once, like sprinting, this muscle has a much higher risk of overstretching.
- Power muscles: The large muscles of the body that produce lots of power, like the quadriceps or the deltoids, are easier to strain compared to small muscles.
Who is at risk for a muscle strain?
Muscle strains can happen to anyone, but certain populations are more likely to get them:
- Athletes: People who regularly push their muscles to their limits are more likely to strain them. This is especially true for athletes who need a lot of speed and power for their sport, like sprinters, jumpers, or throwers.
- Weekend warriors: People who tend to stay sedentary for most of the week, only to jump into their exercise for a day or two are informally known as “weekend warriors”. This group of people are more likely to get injured because muscles need consistent stimulation to stay at their strongest. If you increase your volume of workload too much and too quickly, the muscle is much more likely to overload.
Tips for preventing muscle strains
The best way to deal with a muscle strain is to prevent it from happening in the first place! Here are some tips to help you prevent muscle injuries:
- Adequate warm-up: Muscle strains are more common when a proper warm-up isn’t done. Set aside 10-20 minutes before your activity to prepare your muscles and joints for the workload. Dynamic movements and stretches help bring blood flow and warmth to your muscles, allowing them to take tension and stretching better.
- Gradual increase in workload: As mentioned, one of the most common causes of a muscle strain is increasing exercise intensity too much, too quickly. Make sure that when you try to increase your exercise workload, you do so in a controlled and gradual way.
- Listen to your body! Often when we have a mild muscle strain, we experience pain at the start of an activity, but the pain disappears after warming up. Although you might feel ready to push yourself at this point, remember that you still have an injury! You could be prolonging the injury if you keep pushing through the pain. Listen to your body and modify your activity appropriately to allow the injury to heal.
Physiotherapy treatment for a muscle strain
If you have a muscle injury, physiotherapy can help! Here are some examples of physiotherapy treatment for a muscle strain:
- Activity Modification: Muscles need time to recover and putting them through activity can hinder this recovery. Modify your activities so that your injury gets the time it needs.
- Stretching: As the muscle heals, it will often become stiff and tight. Make sure you do appropriate stretches with the muscle to prevent it from getting too tight!
- Gradual Strengthening: In order to heal as strong as possible, muscles need to be loaded during recovery. Gradual strengthening exercises will give the muscle stimulation to stay strong!
- Manual Therapy: Muscle release and mobilization can help to break up poorly healed scar tissue in the muscle and maintain muscle mobility.
- Dry Needling: This is a technique that can be used to help restore strength and flexibility to the healing muscle.
Contact us today to find out how you can effectively recover from your muscle strain injury!
About The Author
Jonathan Rankin obtained his MSc in Physiotherapy at McMaster University, and also completed both a BSc and an MSc in Human Kinetics from the University of Ottawa. He has a strong background in exercise, from working as a personal trainer at the University of Ottawa to conducting research on exercise during pregnancy in his master’s degree.