A torn muscle may conjure up an image of a rope being torn in half. That sounds painful, but Dave Smith, a Marshfield Clinic physical therapist, says tearing your muscle happens in varying degrees.
“A muscle tear, typically called a strain, doesn’t have such a set definition,” said Smith. “A tear can be anything from a very mild strain of a few fibers tearing, to 99 percent of the fibers tearing.”
When your muscle is torn, it’s either being overstretched or strained with too much weight. Commonly, a strain occurs when your muscles are overloaded in areas like your shoulders, hamstrings, quadriceps, calves and back. However, any muscle in your body is susceptible if overstretched or overloaded to its limit.
Smith says that people often feel tight when there’s a strain. The body causes the muscle to shorten so it can heal, leading to that tight feeling. This also is when spasms may occur.
“A spasm occurs when the muscle doesn’t want to be overstretched or overused,” Smith said.
A strain affects the overall structure of the muscle, causing damage to blood vessels in that spot. Bleeding from the damaged vessels into surrounding muscle and tissues causes bruising, swelling and eventually, pain.
Don’t forget to PRICE
When treating a muscle strain, Smith recommends the acronym PRICE: Protection (wrap or brace the tissues), Rest, Ice, Compression (wrap) and Elevation. In addition, you can take non-steroidal, anti-inflammatory medications like ibuprofen, naproxen or Aleve to help with the pain. Take precautions if you use these medications because those can be rough on your stomach.
Most importantly, Smith said you need to keep moving.
“We really don’t want people to stop moving the muscle completely,” he said. “We want the movement to be very slow, so you’re not overstretching it. Keep the motion to what you can tolerate so it doesn’t create a lot of pain, and then over time keep increasing it as you feel better and better.”
Once you have your motion back, swelling is down and you’re feeling better, strengthening is going to be important to avoid further tears.
Strengthening puts enough resistance on the muscle that over time it will stimulate and rebuild itself,” Smith said. “You’re telling the body to send cells to help rebuild the structure of the muscle that’s damaged.”
Recovery time can take a couple days with a mild strain and up to four to six weeks with more severe cases. Smith recommends seeking care if the pain is severe, and it’s not being controlled by simple over-the-counter medication and the PRICE method.
Is it a strain or just pain?
Mild and severe strains have different characteristics. With mild, there’s a bit of pain, not much swelling and no bruising. For a major strain, there may be bruising or bleeding, more swelling and severe pain.
“I’ll see people with the back of their hamstring or the back of their thigh completely purple,” he said. “If you can’t use it at all, that’s probably a good time to get in and see somebody just to make sure you haven’t suffered other kinds of damage.”
If you have concerns about a muscle injury, talk with your provider.