home / health / muscles & joint problems / muscle strain

Muscle strain

Learn about muscle strains and what you can do after you have strained a muscle

What is a strain?

A strain occurs when muscle fibres are damaged, either stretched or torn. As tendons are an integral part of muscles, strains may also involve damage to tendons. Sometimes, strains may be referred to as a ‘pulled muscle’.

Strains occur as a result of over-stretching of a muscle as a result of excessive forces. Common causes include sporting injuries, a fall, a sudden quick movement or lifting a heavy object. Occasionally, repeated coughing can also strain muscles in the rib cage.

Strains can affect almost every muscle in the body. Common areas affected are muscles in the calf, thigh, back, shoulders and neck. A strain affecting the back or neck may lead to lower back pain or neck pain (a stiff neck).

Strains affecting the muscles at a joint such as the ankle may also be associated with damage to the ligaments – this is known as a sprain.

Difference between a strain and a sprain

A sprain is damage to the ligaments of a joint. Muscles and ligaments are inter-dependent in forming the structure of many joints – so injuries to the ankle, knee or shoulder may result in both strains and sprains. This is the reason the terms are often seen together.

Symptoms of a muscle strain

Typical symptoms of a muscle strain include:

  • Pain at rest, or when using the muscle
  • Stiffness of the joint (because pain limits the way the muscle works)
  • Bruising, which if severe, may lead to swelling of the area.

Severe swelling to the injured area or an abnormal appearance or deformity of the injured muscle can indicate a more severe condition such as a muscle tear. If you notice these symptoms, or if you have severe uncontrolled pain, seek medical help immediately. 

Treatment of muscle strains

If you are able to, treat the muscle strain immediately after the injury. This can help reduce the symptoms experienced whilst you recover from your muscle injury.

  • Rest and stop the activity which has caused the muscle strain
  • Use a cold compress to the injured area
  • If possible, elevate the part of body affected

A simple way of applying a cold compress is to use a packet of frozen peas. Continuing this treatment for 48 hours after injury can help recovery. Pain-killers (either taken by mouth or in the form of creams or gels) can be used to control pain and inflammation.