Muscle strains are one of the most common injuries encountered not only among professional athletes but also among people who are fond of sports in general. However, only a small part of them know the real treatment for muscle strains.
But how can you avoid strains? And how to treat it? Let’s sort it out in order.
What Is a Muscle Strain?
Muscle strain is an injury to a muscle caused by over-stretching it. Literally partially torn muscle tissue, usually at the junction with the tendon. And despite its daunting definition, strains are arguably the most medically neglected injury.
There are many reasons for strains: a muscle can strain due to its own excessive contraction or excessive passive tension. The more damaged muscle fibers there are, the more severe the strain.
In the case of a very strong stretch, the muscle can tear, in the area of the muscle abdomen or at the transition to the tendon. Muscle strains are especially common in the hips and groin.
Of course, there may also be a muscle injury or hematoma, but identifying these injuries outwardly is easier than a strain.
Note: That’s no sPrain! There is no such thing as a muscle “sprain.” Only ligaments can be sprained.
How to Diagnose Muscle Strain?
Many people mistakenly think that they have torn muscles or ligaments because of the pain in them. Some experts in the field of sports medicine have tried to create classifications by which it would be possible to determine what kind of injury a person has suffered, whether it is a strain and what tissue.
But most classifications are controversial in many respects, and the criteria that are indicated in them are not always applicable to every case.
Muscle strains that cause fiber breakdown are rare and, therefore, rarely cause muscle pain.
“Strained,” i.e., an injured muscle, it is often painful and difficult to stretch/ strain.
Strains are often confused with:
- Muscle spasms and cramps – muscle contractions that can cause severe muscle pain. Usually occurs in the muscles of the calves and thighs;
- Trigger points, “muscle knots” – small areas of muscle tissue in which pain and spasms can occur. They are usually not caused by muscle damage;
- “DOMS,” a syndrome of delayed muscle soreness – severe muscle pain that occurs in response to unusual or heavy physical exertion. This condition passes within 1-3 days;
- Back pain is a complex condition that is often associated with a muscle strain, although it is rarely the cause. Perhaps, pain due to muscle strains in back can occur if only you decide to carry the piano down the stairs;
- Other injuries of the musculoskeletal system, especially structures adjacent to muscles, for example, tendons and ligaments.
Muscle Strains Symptoms
To roughly determine if you are at risk of a muscle strain, answer these questions:
- Did you lift something too heavy, or was it sloppy (abrupt, fast, technically incorrect)? Did you have a strange, painful sensation when lifting a weight?
- How long has the injury started? How many weeks ago? If a lot of time has passed, then it is probably not a strain, but a more serious injury.
- Does one or more muscle groups hurt?
- Is there a place in the muscle that is especially sensitive?
- Has your skin turned red? Is it hot? Is there any swelling? Damaged muscle fibers are about five times larger than normal.
- Does the muscle seem to be deformed? Are there any irregularities, depressions?
If the pain gradually increased, did not go away in 6 months, is localized only in one specific place, then you should think about other conditions.
If a trigger point is causing the problem, then a good massage (which almost never works in the case of a strain) is worth considering.
There are three types of situations where muscles tend to tear:
- too much tension;
- pulling/stretching too sharply or too far;
- contracting in a stretched state, i.e., with eccentric muscle work.
The third scenario is the most common in sports. These sprains usually occur when a muscle lengthens for movement but contracts at the same time to control or limit lengthening. Sometimes the muscle-tendon complex is simply not strong enough to withstand these opposing forces.
You can, for example, break your biceps by straining too much while resisting lowering the bar. But most often, such damage to muscle fibers occurs during fast and intense eccentric contractions. For example, they are common among sprinters.
Treatment for Muscle Strains
There are several options available to help shorten recovery time or reduce pain in the injured area. But it is important to remember that at the moment, there are no proven methods of treatment for muscle strains. That is, nothing that 100% speeds up the healing process makes it more complete or prevents complications.
In a 2017 large scientific review by Ramos and colleagues, the researchers concluded that “the evidence for the effectiveness of these methods for muscle injury is not fully established due to the small amount of scientific research on the topic.“
They were referring to cryotherapy, laser therapy, ultrasound therapy, exercise therapy, and manual therapy.
Lack of evidence doesn’t mean that nothing is working. It’s just that none of the options has been studied well enough. Speculation is inevitable.
Here are some treatment options, roughly in order from most promising to least:
- preventing re-injury is most important. Understand what exactly led to the injury and draw conclusions;
- lack of physical activity in the acute period. Do not overload the affected area for the first 2-4 weeks;
- performing exercises for a painless range of motion is very important in the early stages of rehabilitation (stimulus without stress);
- a more thorough warm-up, especially before training (after an acute period);
- strength training as rehabilitation progresses, especially “eccentric” training (lengthening load). It is important to load the area from less weight to more, listening to your feelings. Take your time to increase the load;
- endurance training;
- self-massage around strains and, in some cases, trigger point therapy;
- cooling can be helpful immediately after getting injury;
- a contrast shower (hot and then cold) can stimulate tissues without stressing them;
- prevention of excessive loads and overheating;
- stretching is an ambiguous thing. It probably won’t help prevent injury, but it will be helpful after an acute period in a painless range of motion;
- platelet-rich plasma is not a promising treatment for muscle strains, but some people may find it worth the risk
- pain relievers can sometimes be helpful, but in most cases, they should be avoided.
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