Pulled Muscle

A pulled muscle or a strain can occur when a muscle is overused or overstretched. It’s due to a tear in muscle fibre.

  1. Running or jumping can cause pulled muscles
  2. Can result in sudden pain
  3. Treated by protecting the muscle and resting it

Our doctors are available to help if you are concerned you may have pulled a muscle and want to speak to someone online. You can book an appointment at a convenient time for you. 

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What is a pulled muscle?

A pulled muscle is when a muscle is overstretched and torn. It often occurs when playing sport, but can also happen during everyday activities. 

What strains can you get?

There are three degrees of strains that may develop. A first degree strain can be defined as minor, where a few fibres are torn but the strength of the muscles is retained. A second degree strain is more painful due to more fibres being damaged, resulting in a loss of strength and sometimes bruising. A third degree strain is a complete tear of a muscle, where  muscle function is completely lost.

The muscles most frequently pulled are those that cross between two joints. These include the hamstrings, the upper half of the calf muscle and the rectus femoris, which runs directly down the thigh. In professional football, muscle injuries in general account for around 30% of all injuries. Muscle tears are thought to increase in prevalence with age; however, there are no statistics available for the national incidence rate. Most people who have a pulled muscle do not seek clinical advice, so it’s difficult to assess how widespread they are.

How can you prevent a pulled muscle?

It is not always possible to prevent a muscle from being pulled. However, there are steps that you can take to reduce the risk. Strengthening the muscles you are using often is a good way of doing this. It can also be helpful to both warm-up, by doing gentle aerobic exercise, and cool-down, to prevent the muscles from tightening, which leaves them prone to injury.

Complications from a pulled muscle largely depend on the severity of the injury. Mild strains will usually heal within a few weeks with no long-term complications, whereas a moderate strain will heal within 4-6 weeks. A severe strain may take months to completely heal, and carry a risk of complications; loss of function, and muscle atrophy and fibrosis, can manifest if it’s not correctly managed. The more severe a muscle strain is, the more likely it is that a future strain will occur.

Pulling a muscle can be a painful experience. If you have sharp pain and swelling around one of your muscles after exerting yourself, you should speak to a doctor. Our secure video consultation service enables you to speak to a practitioner online, who can offer advice on managing symptoms and whether you may need to go to hospital for further treatment.

Page last reviewed:  15/06/2020
Diagnosis and treatment

What causes a pulled muscle?

A pulled muscle (or muscle strain) can be caused by overstretching a muscle, or over-using it. It can also happen if a muscle is forced to contract against a force that is stronger than it. 

It’s more common to sustain a pulled muscle whilst playing sport, lifting heavy objects or receiving heavy contact.

Situations that may lead to a pulled muscle include: not warming up properly; having weak muscles; not taking sufficient time to recover between exercise; lifting heavy objects incorrectly; not using appropriate equipment or sports gear.

How is a pulled muscle diagnosed?

It will usually be very obvious that a muscle strain has occurred judging from symptoms. The severity of the tear can vary from mild swelling and discomfort to barely being able to move the muscle. In most cases, a doctor will ask questions about how symptoms developed and conduct a physical examination, checking for swelling, bruising and tenderness. 

Will I need tests?

Typically, tests are not required for a pulled muscle. However, if the injury is particularly severe and symptoms have not improved over an extended period, an MRI or ultrasound may be recommended. A suspected rupture warrants either of these two tests in order to conclusively diagnose a muscle tear.

How is a pulled muscle managed?

A pulled muscle is managed by reducing inflammation and swelling, and allowing the muscle to rest and recover. The acronym PRICE denotes a series of instructions to help the muscle to recover quicker in the first 72 hours of a strain. 

The muscle should be protected (P) and then rested (R). Ice (I) should be applied for up to 20 minutes every two hours after the injury, followed by compression (C) with a bandage and elevation (E) to reduce the pain and swelling. 

Anti-inflammatory drugs and painkillers can also be taken to alleviate pain. In the event of a severe strain or tear, surgery may be necessary, although this is very rare.

Page last reviewed:  15/06/2020
Questions and Answers

How is a pulled muscle treated?

A pulled muscle is usually treated with the PRICE approach in the first 2-3 days. This involves:

  • protecting the muscle (P)
  • resting the muscle (R) 
  • applying an ice pack (I) 
  • using a bandage for compression (C) 
  • and keeping the affected limb elevated (E).

Additionally, there is an acronym for things to avoid: HARM. This involves avoiding heat such as a hot bath (H), alcohol (A), running (R) and massaging (M) which can increase the risk of internal bleeding.

How long will it take for me to recover?

It depends on the severity of the strain. A minor muscle strain will usually heal in less than four weeks. It may take four to six weeks for a moderate strain to recover, and a few months for a more severe strain.

Can I consult a doctor about a pulled muscle online?

Yes. We offer a secure video consultation service which enables you to talk to a practitioner, who can provide guidance on diagnosing and managing a strain. You can book in for an appointment at a time convenient for you. 

Page last reviewed:  15/06/2020

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