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A quadriceps strain is a tear in one of the quadriceps muscles at the front of the thigh. It can range from a mild discomfort to a full blown tear of most of the muscle resulting in severe pain and inability to walk. We explain thigh strains and how best to recover from one.
Thigh strain symptoms
Symptoms of a quadriceps strain or thigh strain typically include a sudden sharp pain at the front of the thigh. Swelling and bruising may develop. A thigh strains are graded 1 to 3 depending on how bad the injury is with a grade 1 being mild and a grade 3 involving a complete or near complete tear of the muscle.
Grade 1 thigh strain
Symptoms of a grade 1 quadriceps thigh strain are not always serious enough to stop training at the time of injury. A twinge may be felt in the thigh and a general feeling of tightness. The athlete may feel mild discomfort on walking and running might be difficult. There is unlikely to be swelling. A lump or area of spasm at the site of injury may be felt.
Grade 2 thigh strain
Grade 2 symptoms are more severe than a grade two. The athlete may feel a sudden sharp pain when running, jumping or kicking and be unable to play on. Pain will making walking difficult and swelling or mild bruising would be noticed. Pain would be felt when pressing in on the suspected location of the quad muscle tear. Straightening the knee against resistance is likely to cause pain and the injured athlete will be unable to fully bend the knee.
Grade 3 thigh strain
Grade 3 symptoms consist of a severe, sudden pain in the front of the thigh. The patient will be unable to walk without the aid of crutches. Bad swelling will appear immediately and significant bruising within 24 hours. A static muscle contraction will be painful and is likely to produce a bulge in the muscle. The patient can expect to be out of competition for 6 to 12 weeks.
Quadriceps strain explained
The quadriceps muscles are the muscles on the front of the thigh. They consist of the vastus lateralis, vastus medialis, vastus intermedius and the rectus femoris. A strain is a tear in the muscle. These can range in severity, from a very small tear to a complete rupture.
Tears to the quadriceps muscles usually occur following an activity such as sprinting, jumping or kicking, especially if a thorough warm-up hasn't been undertaken. Any of these muscles can strain or tear but probably the most common is the rectus femoris. This is because it is the only one of the four muscles which crosses both the hip and knee joints. This make it more susceptible to injury.
A strain can occur either at the musculotendinous junction where the muscle becomes tendon just above the knee, or higher up in the belly of the muscle. Injury to the rectus femoris tendon at the hip either as a tear or an overuse inflammation type injury can also occur.
Injuries that occur following a direct impact to the muscle, such as being hit by a ball or other hard object, are more likely to be contusions and should be treated slightly differently.
Thigh strain treatment
Initial treatment for a thigh strain should be to apply ice or cold therapy and compression as soon as the injury is felt. This will help stop internal bleeding and swelling and hopefully limit the extent of the injury. After the initial acute stage treatment will depend on the severity of the injury.
Grade 1 - Apply the R.I.C.E (rest, ice, compression, elevation) procedure for the first 24 hours. Cold therapy should be applied as soon as possible and initially every hour for 10 to 15 minutes. Later this can be extended to every 2 to 3 hours. Use a compression bandage or thigh support until you feel no pain.
Rest for at least 72 hours before commencing light training. If there is no pain then training can continue gradually. See a sports injury professional who can advise on quad strain rehabilitation.
A professional practitioner will use sports massage and electrotherapy such as ultrasound to speed up recovery. A full rehabilitation program consisting of stretching and strengthening exercises should be done.
Grade 2 - Apply rest, ice and compression as for a grade 1 injury. Ice can be applied for 10 to 15 minutes every hour for the first 48 hours reducing frequency afterwards as swelling and pain reduces.
Wear a compression bandage and rest with the leg elevated. This will help any bruising, swelling and tissue fluids to drain away. Use crutches if necessary and seek professional advice.
After the acute stage alternating hot and cold may be more beneficial. Apply hot for 2 minutes, cold for 1 minute x 6 times making 18 minutes of treatment. This can be done twice a day. Sports massage can help remove tissue fluids and stimulate blood flow. Massage will be light initially but deeper as the injury heals. Electrotherapy treatment can also be used during the subacute stage and a full stretching and strengthening program should be done before returning to full fitness.
Grade 3 - Stop play immediately. Rest with the leg elevated, using a compression bandage. Apply cold therapy and compression immediately and seek medical attention. It is important you do this if you suspect a grade three strain. If you do not you may be permanently injured or weakened.
A professional practitioner will advise on the best course of treatment which is either a long period of rest until the swelling goes down or in rare cases a surgeon can operate.
See thigh strain rehabilitation for more details.
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