How to Treat a Pulled Muscle

There are treatments for strained muscles, and patience is the key to healing. A muscle strain, also called a pulled muscle, occurs when a muscle is stretched too far. Microscopic tears can occur within the muscle fibers. This type of injury usually causes mild to severe pain, and other symptoms, like bruising and immobility, can develop too. Common muscle strains include pulled hamstrings, groin strains, and calf strains.

Man on the beach holding his hamstring
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Symptoms and Grading

The usual symptoms of this type of injury include pain, spasms of the muscle, swelling, bruising, and limited mobility. Often an athlete will feel a sudden grabbing or tearing sensation in the muscle, and will then be unable to continue their activities.

Muscle strain injuries are graded by severity:

  • Grade I: Mild discomfort, often no disability, and usually does not limit activity.
  • Grade II: Moderate discomfort, can limit the ability to perform high-level activities. May have moderate swelling and bruising associated.
  • Grade III: Severe injury that can cause significant pain. Often with muscle spasms, swelling, and significant bruising.

Treating a Pulled Muscle 

Most muscle strain injuries will heal with simple treatment. Following the right steps at the right time can be critical to ensuring the fastest possible recovery. As with many injuries, there is a balance between doing too much or too little, especially in the early stages after the injury.

The amount of activity you will be able to do, and the time required for recovery, are going to vary depending on the severity of the injury. Here are some guidelines to help get you moving in the right direction.

Rest

Rest is recommended for the early recovery phase. This should last from one to five days, depending on the severity of the injury.

Immobilization is not usually necessary, and lack of movement can lead to muscle and joint stiffness. This can be harmful and interfere with movement.

If immobilization is necessary, such as with a splint or cast, it should be carefully supervised by your healthcare provider.

Ice

Ice application helps reduce swelling, bleeding, and pain. Icing should begin as soon as possible after sustaining a pulled muscle. Ice applications can be done frequently, but should not be done for more than 15 minutes at a time.

Anti-Inflammatory Medications

Anti-inflammatory medications can help reduce swelling and alleviate painful symptoms. These medications have potential side effects, including bleeding. So you should check with your healthcare provider prior to starting anti-inflammatory medications.

Gentle Stretching

Stretching and strengthening are useful once the muscle has healed. Stretching is also important for the prevention of muscle strain injuries. Muscles that are more flexible are less likely to be injured.

Strengthening

After injuring the muscle, it is important to regain strength before returning to athletic activities. Both the injury itself and the rest period following the injury can reduce the strength of the muscle. And stronger muscles are less likely to sustain a re-injury.

Avoid Muscle Fatigue

Muscles that are fatigued are more likely to be injured. So you can avoid injuries by making sure you don't over-exert your muscles. Try to gradually increase your level of activity when you are starting an exercise program to build endurance, and stop before you push yourself too far.

Athletes should use caution, especially as they become fatigued, as the muscle becomes more susceptible to strain injuries.

Warm up Properly

Warming up prior to athletic competition or sports will help loosen the muscle and prevent injuries. Jumping into a sport with stiff muscles can lead to a higher chance of straining the muscle.

Laboratory studies have shown that temperature can influence the stiffness of a muscle. By keeping the body and muscles warm, the muscle is less likely to sustain a strain type of injury.

A Word From Verywell

After a muscle injury, it's important to focus on the early steps of healing, and be sure to increase your level of activity gradually as your body allows. In the meantime, as you are healing, make sure to stay moderately active to avoid stiffness and atrophy—which can be complications after a period of inactivity.

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5 Sources
Verywell Health uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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  3. Malanga GA, Yan N, Stark J. Mechanisms and efficacy of heat and cold therapies for musculoskeletal injury. Postgrad Med. 2015 Jan;127(1):57-65. doi:10.1080/00325481.2015.992719

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Additional Reading
  • Noonan TJ, and Garrett WE, "Muscle Strain Injury: Diagnosis and Treatment" J. Am. Acad. Ortho. Surg.