What Is A Muscle Strain?

  • Lewis SpencerDoctor of Philosophy - PhD, Biomedical Sciences, General, University of Derby

Are you curious about muscle strains and how to effectively manage and prevent them? Look no further. In this article, we will take you on a journey through the world of muscle strains, unravelling their mysteries and providing you with the knowledge you need to address these common injuries confidently. Whether you're an athlete, a fitness enthusiast, or someone who simply wants to safeguard their muscles from unnecessary stress, we've got you covered. Understanding the anatomy, causes, symptoms, treatment, and prevention of muscle strain will empower you to lead a healthier, pain-free lifestyle. So, let us help equip you with the tools to care for your muscles and remediate muscle strain. 

Muscle strains are common injuries experienced by people of all ages and activity levels, which can significantly impact our daily lives. Whether they happen during sports, exercise, or routine tasks, muscle strains can be both painful and inconvenient. In this article, we will explore muscle strains, outlining their anatomy, causes, symptoms, diagnosis, treatment, and, most importantly, how to prevent them from occurring in the first place.

Anatomy of muscles

To understand muscle strains fully, let's begin with a brief overview of muscle anatomy. Muscles are soft tissues in our bodies responsible for generating force and facilitating movement.1 Composed of bundles of muscle fibres, they work together in coordination to execute precise actions, such as walking, running, and lifting objects.2

Our muscles are made up of several layers, including the epimysium (outer layer), perimysium (middle layer), and endomysium (inner layer). These layers surround and protect the muscle fibres, allowing them to function effectively.

Muscles have a unique ability to contract and relax, enabling the movement of bones and joints. When a muscle contracts, it shortens, pulling on the tendons that attach to bones, causing movement. Upon relaxation, the muscle returns to its original state.3

The basic unit of muscle contraction is the muscle fibre, a long, thin cell capable of generating force. Muscle fibres are composed of myofibrils, which, in turn, contain actin and myosin filaments. During muscle contraction, these filaments slide past each other, causing the muscle to shorten and generate force.4

Understanding muscle strain

Muscle strain, commonly known as a pulled muscle, occurs when muscle fibres are stretched beyond their normal limits, leading to microscopic tears in the muscle tissue. The severity of muscle strain can range from mild overstretching to partial or complete tears in the muscle fibres.5

Causes of muscle strain

Several factors can contribute to the development of a muscle strain – understanding these causes can help us adopt preventive measures to reduce the risk of injury.6

Overexertion and physical activity

Engaging in vigorous physical activities without adequate conditioning or preparation can put excessive strain on our muscles, leading to injury. Pushing ourselves too hard during workouts or sports activities, especially without proper warm-up, can be a common cause of muscle strain. 

Poor posture and ergonomics

Maintaining improper posture for extended periods while sitting or standing can strain the muscles, particularly in the back, neck, and shoulders. Poor ergonomics at workstations can also contribute to muscle strain.

Inadequate warm-up before exercise

Failing to do warm-up exercises before engaging in physical activities can leave the muscles ‘cold’ and unprepared for more intense movements. Proper warm-up routines help increase blood flow to the muscles and enhance their flexibility, reducing the risk of strain.

Muscle imbalances and weaknesses

Muscle imbalances occur when certain muscles are stronger than others, leading to uneven stress on the body. Additionally, weak muscles may not be able to handle the load, causing neighbouring muscles to compensate and become strained.

Repetitive motions and overuse

Performing repetitive movements, such as typing or lifting, can strain the involved muscles over time. Overusing specific muscles without allowing sufficient rest and recovery time can lead to strain and potential injuries.

Symptoms of muscle strain

Identifying the signs of muscle strain is crucial for early detection and prompt treatment. The symptoms of muscle strain may vary depending on the severity of the injury.7

Pain and discomfort

Muscle strains typically present as localised pain or soreness in the affected area. The pain can range from mild discomfort to severe, sharp sensations, depending on the degree of the strain injury.

Swelling and inflammation

In response to tissue damage, the body initiates an inflammatory response, which results in swelling around the injured muscle that can increase the pain experienced.

Limited range of motion

A muscle strain can restrict movement, making it challenging to fully stretch or contract the affected muscle.

Muscle spasms

Muscle spasms, or involuntary muscle contractions, can occur as a response to a strain and may exacerbate the pain.

Bruising or discoloration

In more severe cases, muscle strains can cause bruising and discolouration due to blood leakage from damaged blood vessels.

Diagnosing muscle strains

If you suspect a muscle strain, it's essential to seek medical evaluation for an accurate diagnosis. Healthcare professionals will perform a thorough physical examination, assessing the injured area's tenderness, range of motion of joints involved with the muscle, and muscle strength. They will also consider your medical history and the circumstances surrounding the injury to determine the extent of the muscle strain. In severe cases, imaging tests, such as Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI) or X-ray, may be used to assess the degree of muscle damage.8

Treatment and management

Treating muscle strains promptly can assist in producing a faster recovery and help prevent further complications. The treatment approach may vary depending on the severity of the strain.9

Protect, optimally load, ice, compression, elevation (POLICE)

The POLICE principles are a commonly used first aid technique, formally known as RICE or PRICE. 1,2

  • Protect: emphasises the importance of avoiding further tissue damage but does not imply indefinite immobilisation as this is not always necessary or desirable (for mild cases, for instance). This could mean using crutches to limit the amount of weight you put through the limb, or it could be ensuring you rest to allow tissue healing
  • Optimal loading: this helps stimulate tissue healing (of bones, tendons, muscles and ligaments). It can also stimulate the body’s lymphatic system to help move fluid away from the affected area and improve the range of movement. For example, contracting the calf muscle can help move fluid against gravity so that it moves away from the ankle. There is a careful balance required to ensure you don’t overdo it – your health professional will be able to give you guidance
  • Ice: apply ice packs or cold compresses to the affected area for 15-20 minutes every 2-3 hours in the first few days to help reduce pain, swelling, and inflammation
  • Compression: use an elastic compression bandage or brace to provide support and compression to the ankle, which can help control swelling and provide stability
  • Elevation: elevate the injured leg above heart level whenever possible to help reduce swelling

Pain relief and anti-inflammatory medications

Over-the-counter pain relief, such as paracetamol or nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) like ibuprofen, can help manage pain and reduce inflammation.

Physiotherapy and exercises for recovery

Physiotherapists and registered physical therapists can play an important role in your rehabilitation process. They can design customised exercises to strengthen your injured muscle gradually, improving flexibility and restoring the normal range of motion. They will also help prevent the formation of scar tissue, which can restrict muscle function and flexibility during healing.

Gradual return to activity and avoiding re-injury

Returning to physical activities too soon can increase the risk of re-injuring the muscle or causing additional damage. It's essential to follow a gradual, phased return to activity under the guidance of a healthcare professional or physiotherapist to prevent further injury.

Prevention of muscle strains

Prevention is the key to avoiding muscle strain and enjoying an active, healthy lifestyle.10 By adopting certain habits and practices, you can significantly reduce the risk of experiencing this common injury.

Proper warm-up and stretching routines

Always begin physical activities with a proper warm-up to prepare the muscles for more intense movements. Dynamic stretching, which involves moving while stretching, is particularly effective for improving flexibility and range of motion and reducing the risk of strain.

Building muscle strength and flexibility

Regular strength training exercises help build stronger muscles, reducing the risk of strain and injury. Incorporating flexibility exercises, such as yoga or pilates, enhances muscle flexibility, making them more resistant to overstretching.

Using proper lifting techniques

When lifting heavy objects, use your legs instead of your back and keep the object close to your body to minimise strain on the back and arms.

Taking breaks during repetitive tasks

If your work or daily activities involve repetitive motions, take frequent breaks to rest and stretch your muscles. This practice helps prevent overuse and reduces the risk of strain.

Listening to your body and avoiding overexertion

Pay attention to your body's signals and avoid pushing yourself beyond your limits. Rest when you feel fatigued, and allow your muscles sufficient time to recover after intense activities.

Complications and when to seek medical attention

Ignoring or neglecting a muscle strain can lead to complications such as chronic or persistent pain, reduced muscle function, or recurrent injuries. If you experience severe pain, swelling, or limited movement after a muscle strain, seek medical attention promptly. Professional evaluation and treatment can prevent further damage and promote a quicker recovery.


Muscle strain is a common but preventable injury that can significantly impact our daily lives. Understanding its causes, symptoms, treatment, and prevention methods empowers us to take better care of our muscles. By incorporating proper warm-up routines, maintaining good posture, and listening to our bodies, we can reduce the risk of muscle strain and enjoy a healthier, pain-free lifestyle. Remember, prevention is key, but seeking medical attention when needed is equally important for a swift and effective recovery. Take care of your muscles, and they will take care of you in return.


  1. Borghuis J, Hof AL, Lemmink KAPM. The importance of sensory-motor control in providing core stability. Sports Med [Internet]. 2008 Nov 1 [cited 2023 Jul 27];38(11):893–916. Available from: https://doi.org/10.2165/00007256-200838110-00002
  2. Knudson D. Fundamentals of biomechanics [Internet]. Cham: Springer International Publishing; 2021 [cited 2023 Jul 27]. Available from: https://link.springer.com/10.1007/978-3-030-51838-7
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  6. Best TM, Hunter KD. Muscle injury and repair. Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation Clinics of North America [Internet]. 2000 May 1 [cited 2023 Jul 27];11(2):251–66. Available from: https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S1047965118301281
  7. McHugh MP, Tyler TF. Muscle strain injury vs muscle damage: Two mutually exclusive clinical entities. Transl Sports Med [Internet]. 2019 Apr [cited 2023 Jul 27];2(3):102–8. Available from: https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1002/tsm2.66
  8. Garrett WE. Muscle strain injuries: clinical and basic aspects. Med Sci Sports Exerc. 1990 Aug 1;22(4):436–43. Available from: https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/2205779/
  9. Noonan TJ, Garrett WEJ. Muscle strain injury: diagnosis and treatment. JAAOS - Journal of the American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons [Internet]. 1999 Aug [cited 2023 Jul 27];7(4):262. Available from: https://journals.lww.com/jaaos/Abstract/1999/07000/Muscle_Strain_Injury__Diagnosis_and_Treatment.6.aspx
  10. Tyler TF, Nicholas SJ, Campbell RJ, Donnellan S, McHugh MP. The effectiveness of a preseason exercise program to prevent adductor muscle strains in professional ice hockey players. Am J Sports Med [Internet]. 2002 Sep [cited 2023 Jul 27];30(5):680–3. Available from: http://journals.sagepub.com/doi/10.1177/03635465020300050801
This content is purely informational and isn’t medical guidance. It shouldn’t replace professional medical counsel. Always consult your physician regarding treatment risks and benefits. See our editorial standards for more details.

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Dr. Lewis Spencer

Doctor of Philosophy - PhD, Biomedical Sciences, General, University of Derby

Lewis is a PhD graduate, where his research focus was on obesity and diabetes treatment with GLP-1 Receptor Agonists. He also has 6 years' experience as an Associate Lecturer in Sport and Exercise Physiology and Research Methods. He is now working as a Health Information Specialist.

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