There’s nothing like a good workout. The accomplishment you feel when you’ve finished a solid training session is like no other. Nothing puts a damper on your training program more than a cringe worthy pulled muscle. Whether it comes from overuse or improper technique, a pulled muscle can cause pain and swelling and will be likely to prevent you from continuing your normal routine. Resting and giving your body time to heal is crucial to regaining your strength, but it can be frustrating to be put out of commission for so long. Fortunately, there are a few ways you can reduce the downtime you need to heal.
1. Apply Ice
Let’s start with the most well-known treatment. Icing an injury causes blood vessels in the area to constrict, reducing blood flow. This slows internal bleeding from damaged blood vessels and reduces swelling around the injured area. Cold also relieves pain. Even better, the pain relief lasts for a few minutes even after the ice is removed, making it easier to perform light exercise and stretches to help regain a normal range of motion. Applying ice to an injury even prevents muscle spasms by making the tissue less sensitive to being stretched.
When an injury occurs, ice should be applied as soon as possible. Crushed ice in a plastic bag is most effective, followed by frozen gel packs. Don’t apply the ice directly to the skin, though. Instead, use a wet cloth as a barrier to prevent frostbite. According to the Association of Ringside Physicians, you should ice the injury for 10-15 minutes every 3-4 hours. This process should continue for three days, or until the swelling has gone.
In addition to ice, you should also apply compression to the injured area and elevate it to further reduce swelling. This is often called the PRICE treatment:
- Protect – make sure to protect the muscle from further injury
- Rest – do not resume vigorous exercise until you’re fully healed
- Ice – apply ice to the injured area
- Compression – use firm compression, but not so much you cut off circulation
- Elevate – keep the injury elevated to help reduce swelling
It’s important to remember that just because your injury doesn’t hurt anymore after you ice it, this doesn’t mean you should return to normal exercise right away. If the muscle hasn’t fully healed yet, you could injure yourself even further. It’s important to start slowly, and be very conscious of the amount of strain you put on the muscle. If you’re not sure how soon you should resume normal activity, consult with a doctor
2. Drink Juice
Keeping hydrated is important, but there’s one type of fruit juice that can go above and beyond just keeping you hydrated. A study conducted by Oregon Health & Science University showed that drinking tart cherry juice can significantly reduce muscle pain. Runners drank 355 ml (12 oz.) of tart cherry juice twice a day for one week prior to a long distance race, as well as on the day of the race itself. Before and after the race, participants rated their level of pain on a 100 mm sliding scale. Those given the placebo drink showed an average increase in pain of 37 mm on the scale. In contrast, those given the tart cherry juice had their pain increase by an average of just 12 mm.
So, how does it work? Much of the pain experienced after intense long-distance running comes from swelling and inflammation in the muscles. Tart cherries contain compounds with anti-inflammatory properties, as well as antioxidants. Since the primary goal after a muscle is pulled is to reduce swelling and inflammation, tart cherries may be able to help hasten your recovery.
Tart cherry juice has also been shown to reduce the symptoms of muscle damage, particularly when it comes to strength loss. In this study, participants given the placebo had their strength deteriorate by 22% after strenuous exercise, while those given tart cherry juice saw only a 4% reduction. Drinking tart cherry juice could help you return to your regular exercise routine and get back to full strength faster than you normally would.
3. Engage in Light Exercise
Performing very light exercises is a crucial part of regaining your mobility and muscle function. However, it’s important to note you should avoid exercising an injured muscle immediately. The muscle should be kept immobile long enough for you to move without pain before you begin exercise. For less severe injuries, 12 to 24 hours is often enough, but you should always talk to a doctor if you’re unsure.
Once your body has had time to build some scar tissue in the injured area, you need to begin frequent low-intensity exercise. Don’t use weights at first. Just move the joint controlled by that muscle through its full range of motion. Hydrotherapy can also help, as it allows you to move without fighting the full force of gravity. This can be especially useful for leg injuries such as ACL tears, which affects 150,000 people per year.
As you heal, you should slowly increase the intensity of your exercise. Start with very light weights, and add more weight gradually. If you experience pain or the muscle gives out, you need to reduce the amount of weight you’re using. Remember, this is about recovery. Strength training can wait.
For leg injuries, increasing exercise intensity can mean progressing from non-weight-bearing exercises, like hydrotherapy, to standing, walking and even running as you recover further. If you have access to the proper equipment, you can use light weights for leg injuries as well. However, remember to perform the exercise with no added weight at first. You need to ensure you can perform the full motion without pain before you make the exercise more difficult.
4. Go to a Physical Therapist
If you really want to recover as quickly as possible, the best thing to do is consult with a medical professional. This is especially important for more severe injuries. A physical therapist can guide you through every step of the recovery process, from cold treatment to exercise and beyond. They can also help you determine the cause of your injury so you don’t make the same mistake again.
A physical therapist may also have access to facilities, equipment and techniques you wouldn’t be able to use on your own. Although most physical therapy follows the same basic principles of eliminating swelling, reducing pain and gradually increasing activity, there are a wide variety of specific methods available. A therapist will be able to determine which methods would be most effective in treating your particular injury.
Take Home Message
When treating a pulled muscle, it’s important to remember the initial recovery isn’t the end of the process. Even if it feels fine, your muscle will be more prone to injury for some time, so you need to be extra careful. Once you determine what caused the injury, be mindful when performing similar activities, and don’t let your ego push you past the point of safety. Vigorous exercise is a great way to take care of your body, but if you keep injuring yourself, it will do more harm than good.