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How to recover from a pulled muscle

A pulled muscle, or muscle strain, occurs when a muscle or tendon is overstretched or torn. Muscle strains can occur without warning and affect people of all ages and fitness levels. Because these types of injuries can range in severity, you should see your doctor right away if you:

  • Are in a significant amount of pain

  • Cannot walk

  • Heard a popping sound when the injury occurred

  • Have a fever

  • Have broken skin at the injury site

  • Have major swelling of the injured area

“If you think you have pulled a muscle, I always recommend being evaluated by a medical professional to ensure a proper diagnosis,” says Lauren Powell, M.D., a family medicine physician at Piedmont.

If you only have mild discomfort, you may be able to treat the pulled muscle at home. However, you should consult with your doctor if you still have pain after 24 hours of at-home treatment.

Signs you have a muscle strain

Muscle strains are most common in the hamstrings, lower back, shoulders and neck. Symptoms of a pulled muscle include:

  • Bruising, swelling or redness at the injury site

  • Difficulty using the affected muscle

  • Muscle weakness

  • Sudden pain when using the affected muscle

  • Pain when the muscle is at rest

What causes muscle strains?

Muscle strains can be caused by:

How to treat a pulled muscle

“Once the diagnosis has been confirmed, it is usually managed with anti-inflammatories, muscle relaxers and targeted physical therapy,” says Dr. Powell. “Heating pads have also been shown to be beneficial.”

Your doctor may recommend the following at-home treatments:

  • Rest. Rest the muscle for a few days or until your doctor gives you the okay. If you had a minor muscle strain, you should be able to do some gentle movement after two days.  

  • Ice. Apply ice to the injury for 20 minutes each hour you’re awake. Ice can help reduce inflammation. Never apply ice directly to bare skin; instead, wrap the ice pack in a towel first.

  • Compression. Wrapping the muscle with an elastic bandage can help bring down swelling. Avoid wrapping it too tightly or your muscle won’t get enough blood circulation.

  • Elevation. Elevate the injured muscle to reduce swelling.

  • Medication. Your physician may recommend a nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory medication, like ibuprofen, to reduce pain and swelling.

  • Heat. Use a heating pad a few times a day after three days. Never apply heat directly to bare skin; always wrap the heating pad in a towel.

How to prevent a pulled muscle

“Pulled muscles can be prevented by utilizing proper technique when lifting and carrying,” says Dr. Powell. “For instance, individuals may pull a muscle at the gym due to improper form while exercising or by lifting something heavy and forgetting to bend at the knees. I also encourage patients to warm up prior to engaging in exercise and to stretch daily.”

Check out more health and wellness tips from Living Better experts.

Dr. Powell practices at Piedmont Physicians Buckhead, located at 35 Collier Road Northwest, Suite 500, Atlanta, GA 30309. Schedule an appointment with Dr. Powell or one of our other primary care providers. Save time, book online.

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