If you’ve ever strained a muscle, you aren’t alone. It’s an extremely common type of injury. Strains occur when the muscle fibers or tendons that attach your muscle to your bones over-stretch and tear. Some tears are micro-tears while others are much bigger. Most strains are accompanied by pain, inflammation and swelling.
Inflammation is the body’s natural way of starting the healing process. Inflammation increases blood flow, activates cells that remove damaged tissues and helps prevent infection. However, inflammation also causes a lot of discomfort. Without the right treatment, it can lead to long-term problems.
When a muscle is injured and inflamed, the physical length of the muscle may shorten over time. If these muscle fibers are not gently stretched and rehabilitated, it’s possible to lose strength and range of motion. This is a perfect recipe for reinjury and continued musculoskeletal issues.
For most mild injuries, you can manage inflammation and pain and rehabilitate the muscle or tendon at home. The classic acronym RICE is still relevant today.
• Rest the injured muscle by not performing physical activities that cause further strain to the muscle.
• Ice on the first day following a strain. Place a towel between the ice and your bare skin. Apply for 20 minutes on and 20 minutes off, for two to three cycles. Icing for longer than 20 minutes at a time can damage the tissue. After the first day you can try alternating between heat and ice, using the same precautions to protect your skin. Heat is also beneficial before stretching or massaging the area.
• Compression can help relieve swelling. A simple elastic bandage from a pharmacy or drugstore works well. Make sure not to over-tighten the wrap. Skin should not lose color or become numb.
• Elevation allows gravity to aid in reducing swelling. Inflammation can generate fluid, which tends to pool at the site of the injury. For arm and leg injuries, try to take breaks during which you elevate the injured limb above your heart.
Over-the-counter pain relievers can also ease symptoms. Just make sure you’ve checked with your provider to confirm that these drugs are safe given your unique health history and that you understand the correct dosage and duration.
Massage can also be therapeutic for muscle strains. When a professional massage is not available, try a tennis ball. Place the ball between the sore area and a well or the floor and apply pressure. Foam rollers — cylinders made of dense foam material — aren’t just for athletes. They’re great for anyone needing a foot, calf, hamstring, quadriceps, shoulder, back or neck massage. Foam rollers can be purchased at sporting goods stores, gyms or online.
Remember that there is a wide spectrum of severity with these types of injuries. While mild strains are generally appropriate to treat at home and should improve significantly in two to three days, more serious injuries require prompt medical evaluation and treatment. Head to an urgent care clinic or see your primary care provider if you have severe pain that limits your ability to move without assistance, inability to move a joint, numbness or extensive swelling or bruising.