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What is a muscle strain and how should you treat it?

muscle strain

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Muscle strain is one of the most common sport-related injuries caused by explosive force, due to muscle fiber contraction. In sports such as athletics, basketball or soccer calf muscle strains are commonplace. However, this injury, which occurs when muscle fibers tear, can strike while doing any type of sport. Some studies suggest that the strain rate in seasoned athletes is roughly 15%. It is even higher in the most intensive sports, such as sprinting, for example.

Differences between a muscle strain and a muscle tear

Muscle strains are common sports injuries, but not exclusive to athletes; in other words, people who lead a sedentary lifestyle can also get them if they overexert themselves. Generally, the strain strikes following a sudden cramp, an excessive muscular elongation or out of the ordinary overexertion. It usually occurs in the lower body after sudden changes in speed, and mainly affects the adductors, hamstrings, soleus, calf muscles and rectus anterior quads.

They are also sometimes referred to as muscle tears, since the fibers that make up the muscle have been stretched beyond their limits. However, the tear is only one of the symptoms of the muscle strain but perhaps the most prominent. In any case, the severity of the problem will depend on the number of fibers that sustain damage, which will determine the recovery time. This can range from 8 to 10 days, when the injury is mild, to more than 3 weeks in the case of severe injuries.

Symptoms of a muscle strain

It is normal for this type of injury to be mistaken for a cramp. In fact, according to specialists, when it comes to small muscle strains, it can be difficult to differentiate between them. 

However, when the strain is more significant, symptoms such as tearing, bruising, sharp pain, swelling and even the inability to continue what you are doing are common. On the other hand, with cramps there is only slight discomfort in the affected area. Having said that, we must not lose sight of the fact that a cramp could be a sign of a muscle strain to come.

A muscle strain can be easily spotted, as its symptoms will not go unnoticed. The most common symptom is feeling as if you have received a blow to the affected area, with intense and sudden pain. However, there are others:

  • A bruise will appear on the affected area, caused by rupture of the blood vessels adjacent to the damaged fibers. It may show up after a few hours or even a few days.
  • In severe cases, movement may be restricted due to contraction of adjacent muscles.
  • Intense pain can cause cold sweats and dizziness.

Most common muscle strains

These types of injuries can be classified, depending on their severity, into three degrees:

  • Grade I muscle strain. Affects only a limited number of fibers in the muscle. The discomfort suffered by the athlete is minimal.
  • Partial strain or grade II. Strains have nearly half of muscle fibers torn. Acute and significant pain is accompanied by swelling and a minor.
  • Complete strain or grade III. This means either the tendon is separated from the muscle belly or the muscle belly is actually torn in two. Surgery may be required to repair it. The athlete will no longer be able to train/compete and it can lead to muscular deformation.

Who is at risk of muscle strain: risk factors

There are several causes linked to muscle strain, and one of them is direct trauma. However, the most common reason is exercising without warming up properly or making very sudden movements that cause the muscle to tighten. Other risk factors that can cause a strain are:

  • Metabolic diseases such as diabetes or thyroiditis.
  • Poor hydration or nutrition.
  • A sedentary lifestyle can cause muscle tissue to become weak.
  • Poor circulation in the body. This leads to the muscles becoming poorly oxygenated and the build-up of lactic acid. As a result, the fibers are more prone to damage.
muscle strain and a muscle tear

How can muscle strain be prevented?

Muscle strains generally occur in the muscles that are used the most. It is a very common injury that can be disabling, so it is worth knowing how to prevent it. Follow these tips to protect muscles as much as possible:

  • Work on muscle toning. This will makes the muscles stronger, prepared and protected against different types of injuries. A good way to do this is down to the benefits of electrical stimulation to work on strength and power.
  • Warm-up and stretching. You should relax your muscles before and after exercising. Warming up prepares the body for exercise, and stretching afterwards relax the body and muscles.

Warming up well before and stretching post-workout will help prevent future injuries. In this post we explain some keys to prevent stiffness.

  • Rest. Having a good training routine is important and rest plays a key role in it. Not getting enough rest can lead to injuries or muscle tears in the medium term. In this post, we explain how to combat stress and relieve tension..
  • Train progressively. Muscle strains can be prevented if the body is not overexerted. To do this, you must adapt your training to your characteristics and capabilities. Gradually increase intensity. 
  • Nutrition. To get healthy and strong muscles you must follow a healthy diet rich in high-quality proteins. Your diet should include legumes, meats and fish rich in omega 3, an essential component for the muscles to function properly. Let’s not forget fruits and vegetables that provide you with vitamins C and E: they help muscle recovery and reduce inflammation.
  • Hydration. Muscle dehydration may increase your risk of getting muscle strains, so you should drink water according to your physiological characteristics.
  • Sports equipment. It is important to use suitable equipment. Footwear, for example, is essential, as it will prevent unnecessary strains.

To sum up, the most effective way to prevent muscle strains is to do a proper dynamic warm-up before exercising, whatever the nature of the exercise. Getting enough rest is vital too, as well as adapting the intensity to your capabilities and eating a balanced diet.

Treatment of muscle strains

Although muscle injuries like this do not usually leave long-term damage, you should always get them treated by a professional. Especially if you want to prevent possible relapses. The following aspects are key when it comes to properly treating a muscle strain.

  • Recovery. This means walking as little as possible and, of course, putting exercise on the back burner. Recovery means preventing further fiber tear which could make the injury worse. This period is short, 2 or 3 days, and you should keep the injured area in an elevated position. What’s more, it is usually recommended to wear a compression bandage that does not immobilize the muscle. Kinesiology tape is perfect, as it favors venous return and drainage.
  • Apply something cold. Applying something cold for around 15 minutes soothes the pain and reduces inflammation. Use frozen bands or ice, but never directly on the skin: always with a cloth in between.
  • Non Steroidal Anti-Inflammatory Drugs (NSAIDs). The most common non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs are Naproxen, Ibuprofen, Paracetamol, Aspirin or Dexketoprofen. They all relieve pain and reduce inflammation.
  • Rehabilitation. Don’t get back in the saddle until the sharp pain is gone completely. Getting back into the swing of things should be progressive, starting with gentle stretching several times a day and a very specific activity, supervised at all times. During this phase, the muscle should not be pushed too hard. Applying heat to the area is recommended after each session.
  • Electrical muscle stimulation (EMS). This therapy has proven to be very effective in treating muscle strains. More information below.
Treatment of muscle strains

Electrical muscle stimulation in muscle strains

Electrical muscle stimulation is a physical therapy technique that can be used to restore nerve or muscle tissue function after it has been damaged. You can use the EMS and TENS systems.  

This offers many benefits; it can be great for knee injuries, to treat epicondylitis or to build strength. However, in the specific case of a muscle strain, it should be borne in mind that electrical stimulation helps to repair muscle mass.

How can you use electrical muscle stimulation to treat a muscle strain?

First of all, pain can be treated to break the so-called vicious circleof cramp-pain-cramp. If possible, prevent bruising, and for this purpose it is best to do what you can to disperse it and get rid of it. Attracting more blood to that area will lead to waste build-up, and this can be achieved with contractions; always below the pain threshold, of course. Good vascularization is also necessary to regenerate the tissue so that it can heal. So, electrical stimulation offers good support. What’s more, it contributes to restoring the mechanical qualities of the injured muscle.
As you can see, a muscle strain can occur for multiple reasons, whether in sedentary people who overexert themselves or in athletes. Electrical stimulation is a great ally to combat this and other types of injuries. If you found this information useful, feel free to subscribe to our blog to learn more.

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