Pulled Muscle

Medically Reviewed By William C. Lloyd III, MD, FACS
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What is a pulled muscle?

A pulled muscle is a type of soft tissue injury called a strain. Strains can also involve tendons, which are connective tissue bands that attach muscles to bones. Muscles and tendons work together to enable movement. It’s common to injure both types of tissue during a strain. A similar injury—a sprain—affects ligaments, which hold bones to other bones at a joint.

Some muscles are more susceptible to strains than others. It’s common to have a pulled neck muscle, pulled back muscle, or pulled calf muscle. But you can have a strained muscle in other areas, including the groin, thigh, feet, ankles, arms and hands. You can even have a pulled muscle in the chest. These injuries can range from a mild muscle pull to a complete tear. The amount of pain and other symptoms will depend on the severity of the strain.

Strains can develop slowly over time or happen very suddenly. Chronic strains are overuse injuries from repetitive motions. Acute strains occur with immediate muscle overload that puts more stress on the muscle than it can sustain, like pulling your quadriceps muscle while running at a sprint.

See prompt medical care if you suspect a mild or moderate muscle strain. Seek immediate medical care (call 911) if you, or someone you are with, have symptoms of a severe muscle strain or tear including severe, disabling pain.

What are symptoms of pulled muscle?

The symptoms of a pulled muscle range from mild to severe, depending on the extent of the injury. Chronic strains tend to have vague symptoms that are easy to overlook at first. Pulling a muscle suddenly usually results in very noticeable and more severe symptoms.

Common symptoms of pulled muscle

Along with pain, the most common symptoms of a pulled muscle are:

  • Bruising

  • Limited range of motion

  • Muscle cramping or spasms

  • Muscle weakness

  • Swelling

Symptoms that might indicate a more serious condition

A pulled muscle can be serious in some cases, possibly involving a torn muscle or tendon. Seek immediate medical care (call 911) if you, or someone you are with, have any of the following serious symptoms:

  • Hearing a pop sound at the time of the injury

  • Inability to use the muscle (complete loss of muscle function)

  • Severe pain or swelling

Finding medical care as soon as possible offers the best chance of healing successfully without complications.

What causes pulled muscle?

A pulled muscle happens when you overstretch, stress, twist or tear the muscle. This damage can be acute or chronic and these two scenarios have different causes.

Chronic muscle strains and pulls develop gradually over time. They are repetitive strain injuries—the result of prolonged, repetitive overuse of the muscle or muscle group. When you use the same muscles in the same pattern, repeatedly over time, small stresses build on each other. This eventually causes wear and tear on the muscle leading to a strain. Examples of causes include:

  • Improper body mechanics, such as lifting with your back instead of your legs. This can result in a pulled muscle in the back.

  • Improperly fitting shoes and other sporting equipment

  • Lack of diversity in activities, such as always doing the same exercises in the same way

  • Poor posture, which stresses muscles that normally do not support posture

  • Poor sports technique, such as habitually gripping a golf club or tennis racket too tightly

Acute muscle strains and pulls happen suddenly when you load a muscle beyond its capacity. Examples of causes include:

  • Direct blow to the muscle

  • Excessive contraction of the muscle

  • Overstretching

  • Trauma

What are the risk factors for pulled muscle?

Several factors increase the risk of pulling a muscle, including:

  • Muscle imbalance, which causes one group of muscles to overcompensate for another group. Overcompensation is overworking and straining the muscle.

  • Muscle tightness

  • Muscle fatigue or weakness from overuse or underuse

  • Poor conditioning

Reducing your risk of a pulled muscle

You may be able to lower your risk of pulling a muscle by:

  • Avoiding strenuous activities when your muscles are already fatigued or weakened

  • Cross-training with a variety of activities

  • Maintaining physical conditioning, flexibility, strength, and a healthy body weight

  • Practicing safety measures, including avoiding slips and falls and wearing appropriate protective equipment

  • Using proper body mechanics and posture

  • Warming up appropriately before physical activity

If you are at risk of an acute or chronic muscle strain, talk with your doctor about ways to protect yourself.

How is a pulled muscle treated?

A mild to moderate pulled muscle usually responds to home treatment. This includes RICE (rest, ice, compression and elevation) and NSAIDs (nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs), such as ibuprofen (Advil, Motrin) and naproxen (Naprosyn). NSAIDs help reduce swelling and relieve pain and soreness. Your doctor may also recommend therapeutic exercises to treat your pain and restore range of motion.

Serious muscle strains or tears may require surgery to repair the muscle. Afterwards, you may need regular physical therapy to recover and return to activities.

What are the potential complications of pulled muscle?

Mild to moderate muscle pulls typically heal without complications. Without proper treatment and adequate recovery, serious muscle strains can cause permanent damage and limited range of motion. Other complications include chronic pain, disability, loss of mobility, weakness, and poor quality of life. The best way to prevent these problems is to seek prompt medical care for muscle pain, soreness or weakness. Then, carefully follow your treatment and recovery plan.

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Medical Reviewer: William C. Lloyd III, MD, FACS
Last Review Date: 2020 Aug 26
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THIS TOOL DOES NOT PROVIDE MEDICAL ADVICE. It is intended for informational purposes only. It is not a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. Never ignore professional medical advice in seeking treatment because of something you have read on the site. If you think you may have a medical emergency, immediately call your doctor or dial 911.
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