What are muscle strains?

Most muscle strains (pulled muscles) are caused by overstretching muscles. Strains may be minor or severe, such as a torn muscle or tendon.

Symptoms of a muscle strain can vary depending on how severe the strain is and may include:

  • Pain and tenderness that is worse with movement.
  • Swelling and bruising.
  • Normal or limited muscle movement.
  • A bulge or deformity at the site of a complete tear.

Recovery time for a muscle strain can vary depending on a person's age and health and the type and severity of the strain. While a minor strain often heals well with home treatment, a severe strain may require medical treatment. If a severe strain is not treated, a person may have long-term pain, limited movement, and deformity.

When to call

Muscle strain: When to call

Call your doctor now or seek immediate medical care if:

  • You have new severe pain.
  • Your injured limb is cool or pale or changes color.
  • You have tingling, weakness, or numbness in your injured limb.
  • You cannot move the injured area.

Watch closely for changes in your health, and be sure to contact your doctor if:

  • You cannot put weight on a joint, or it feels unsteady when you walk.
  • Pain and swelling get worse or do not start to get better after 2 days of home treatment.


How can you care for your muscle strain?

  • Rest the strained muscle. Do not put weight on it for a day or two. If your doctor advises you to, use crutches or a sling to rest a sore limb.
  • Put ice or a cold pack on the sore area for 10 to 20 minutes at a time. Try to do this every 1 to 2 hours for the next 3 days (when you are awake). Put a thin cloth between the ice and your skin.
  • Prop up the sore arm or leg on a pillow when you ice it or anytime you sit or lie down during the next 3 days. Try to keep it above the level of your heart. This will help reduce swelling.
  • After 2 or 3 days, you can try applying heat to the area that hurts. Apply heat for 10 to 20 minutes at a time, several times a day. You might also try switching between ice and heat.
  • Take pain medicines exactly as directed.
    • If the doctor gave you a prescription medicine for pain, take it as prescribed.
    • If you are not taking a prescription pain medicine, ask your doctor if you can take an over-the-counter medicine.
  • Do not do anything that makes the pain worse. Return to exercise gradually as you feel better.

Copyrighted material adapted with permission from Healthwise, Incorporated. This information does not replace the advice of a doctor.


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