A muscle strain is an injury to a muscle or a tendon — the fibrous tissue that connects muscles to bones. Minor injuries may only overstretch a muscle or tendon, while more severe injuries may involve partial or complete tears in these tissues.
Sometimes called pulled muscles, strains commonly occur in the lower back and in the muscles at the back of the thigh (hamstrings).
The difference between a strain and a sprain is that a strain involves an injury to a muscle or to the band of tissue that attaches a muscle to a bone, while a sprain injures the bands of tissue that connect two bones together.
Initial treatment includes rest, ice, compression and elevation. Mild strains can be successfully treated at home. Severe strains sometimes require surgical repair.
Signs and symptoms will vary, depending on the severity of the injury, and may include:
- Pain or tenderness
- Redness or bruising
- Limited motion
- Muscle spasms
- Muscle weakness
When to see the doctor
Mild strains can be treated at home. See a doctor if your symptoms worsen despite treatment — especially if your pain becomes intolerable, or you experience numbness or tingling.
Acute strains can be caused by one event, such as using poor body mechanics to lift something heavy. Chronic muscle strains can result from repetitive injuries when you stress a muscle by doing the same motion over and over.
Participating in contact sports — such as soccer, football, hockey, boxing and wrestling — can increase your risk of muscle strains.
Certain parts of the body are more susceptible to strains during participation in certain sports. Examples include:
- Legs and ankles. Sports that feature quick starts and jumping, such as hurdling and basketball, can be particularly tough on the Achilles tendon in your ankle.
- Hands. Gripping sports, such as gymnastics or golf, can increase your risk of muscle strains in your hands.
- Elbows. Elbow strains are often caused by throwing sports and racquet sports.
Regular stretching and strengthening exercises for your sport, fitness or work activity, as part of an overall physical conditioning program, can help to minimize your risk of muscle strains. Try to be in shape to play your sport; don't play your sport to get in shape. If you have a physically demanding occupation, regular conditioning can help prevent injuries.