If you’re engaged in any sort of regular exercise regime (that includes you weekend warriors!), you’ve probably experienced a pulled muscle. You know how it goes: You’re on a roll, feeling strong, and then it hits—ouch!
The pain can rate anywhere from a dull (but totally annoying) ache to holy-cow-that-hurts throbbing, with every movement a reminder of the injury. You may even experience limited mobility. With either situation, listening to your body and responding swiftly is key so that you can safely resume your everyday activities.
Understanding the Injury
“When people refer to a ‘pulled muscle,’ what they are really referring to is a muscle strain,” says Chris Falcon, a Chicago-based certified personal trainer and founder of Reactive Performance Enhancement Center.
So what actually happens to the muscle? “Due to a multitude of factors, the muscle tissue has been stressed beyond what it can handle, and different degrees of tearing or damage has been done,” says Falcon.
Not all pulled muscles are created equal, but there are two main kinds of common muscle strain:
“A Grade 1 strain is less severe and requires a couple weeks to heal,” says Falcon. “A Grade 2 strain is more severe, but does not include a complete rupture of the tissue. There are Grade 3 strains, but I don’t classify these as muscle pulls. These are when there is extensive damage, and surgery could be possible.”
So do you hop into a hot shower and hope for the best? Or do you stretch it out? Neither, actually.
Cold is king right after an injury takes place. Mayo Clinic advises using the R.I.C.E. (Rest, Ice, Compression, and Elevation) plan of action, which includes icing the muscle and then resting it (yep, this actually means you need to refrain from using that muscle!).
Immediately, you’ll want to “discontinue the exercise or activity before they do more damage to the muscle,” says Robert Herbst, personal trainer and powerlifter.
In tandem with resting the area, you’ll want to apply ice for 20 minutes to reduce bleeding and inflammation. You can do this every few hours, daily.
You can use an ice pack or even a bag of frozen peas, or you can get into an ice-slush bath. This will relieve swelling while also helping to minimize the pain. Herbst warns to limit icing to 20 minutes, though, as after that amount of time the cold can have the opposite effect on the body—increasing blood flow to the area (painful!) in order to prevent frostbite.
Next, you’ll want to compress the area: “They can wrap the area with a bandage to reduce blood flow to the area and to provide support,” says Herbst, using the example of a person who has pulled a hamstring but still needs to walk.
Lastly, you’ll want to elevate the area. In the event of a pulled calf, for example, lying down with one’s foot up on pillows would be ideal. The strain should be elevated above heart level to continue reducing blood flow.
Treating the Symptoms
To combat discomfort, you may want to use an anti-inflammatory, such as ibuprofen, or you can go the more natural route:
Homeopathic supplements, like Arnica Montana 30C, are commonly used help relieve symptoms related to muscle aches and swelling. If you prefer a topical approach, Arnica Gel is a fast-absorbing option for the temporary relief of pain, stiffness, and swelling.
2. Tiger Balm
You can also turn to Tiger Balm, which is a centuries-old ointment that utilizes camphor and menthol to send a soothing, icy-hot sensation to the pain point.
“After 24 hours, they can consider, depending on the pain, doing light exercise to flood the area with blood to promote healing, followed by ice,” says Herbst. This might look like a careful stretch or a series of slow, gentle yoga sequences.
4. Castor oil
Mindy Solkin, professional running coach and founder of The Running Center in Philadelphia, PA, uses castor oil for pain reduction. First, she pours the castor oil onto a flannel cloth or paper towel. She then places it over the muscle, wraps it in Saran wrap, places a heating pad on top (medium heat), and leaves it there for about 15-20 minutes.
Note that if the swelling continues, or if there’s a significant loss of mobility, bleeding, or a change in the shape of the muscle, you should head to the doctor. These may all be signs of a more serious issue.
Avoid Future Injury
In terms of prevention, you want to make your warm-up a priority. “Everyone knows that it’s best practice to stretch thoroughly before exercising, but it’s also really important to stretch after you’ve finished your workout,” says Dr. Jae Park, a physical therapist at Advanced Wellness in NJ. “This helps increase blood flow and reduce muscle fatigue, leading to a faster recovery that prevents future injuries.”
It doesn’t need to be overly choreographed, though. Falcon suggests keeping the intensity low and movements simple.
Another way to keep your muscles in tip-top shape: Stay hydrated. “This not only includes drinking water, but also eating nutrient-dense superfoods, to ensure a balance in osmotic pressure at the cellular level,” says Falcon.