A strain is a muscular injury, which shouldn't be confused with a 'sprain', which is a ligament injury. Strains are tears to the muscle, which can vary in severity, from very minor, to a complete rupture. A muscle strain is normally caused by a change in speed or direction and can often affect sprinters for example. Hamstrings and calves are two of the major muscles most commonly strained.
What is a Strain
Muscle strains are usually caused by a sudden stretching force or a very forceful contraction of the muscle. In sports, they are most commonly injured by sudden changes in speed or direction. Muscle strains should also not be confused with contusions. These occur when there is a direct impact on the muscle and should be treated slightly differently.
Strains are graded 1, 2 or 3 depending on their severity:
- Grade 1 injuries are the least severe, with up to 10% of a muscles fibres being damaged.
- Grade 2 injuries vary considerably, with between 10 and 90% of fibres torn. For this reason, they are often sub-classified into 2- and 2+.
- Grade 3 injuries are generally a complete rupture of the muscle.
Common Muscle Strains:
Other, smaller muscles can be strained too, although they are less commonly injured.
What are the Symptoms?
The symptoms of a muscle strain do vary depending on severity, but generally, the following occurs:
- A sudden pain or feeling that the muscle has tightened.
- Contraction of the muscle usually causes pain.
- There will be an area of the muscle which is tender to touch.
- Stretching the muscle will be painful in grade 2 and 3 injuries.
- Swelling and bruising will be present in more severe injuries.
- There may be a decrease in movement at the joints above or below the muscle.
How are Strains Treated?
Initially, all muscle strains should be treated the same. The injury should be rested and cold therapy should be applied as soon as possible and then regularly for the first 48 hours. The injury should also be elevated and a compression bandage or support applied to help reduce bleeding and swelling. If a grade 3 injury is suspected then medical attention should be sought immediately.
With minor injuries, mobility and stretching exercises can usually begin within 48 hours, or as soon as they are pain-free. Strengthening can then begin once full movement is regained. Grade 2+ injuries will require a longer period of complete rest. For grade 3 injuries, always follow your Doctors advice.
Sports massage is a very useful treatment following a muscle strain. It should not be applied within 48 hours of the injury, or if bleeding is still suspected. After this initial period, it can be very useful in helping to relax the muscle, increase the blood flow to aid healing, break down excess scar tissue and realign the new muscle fibres.
A thorough rehabilitation of a muscle strain should always be completed before returning to the sport. Flexibility and strength should be equal to the other side before sports specific drills are gradually introduced.