Raise your hand if you’ve ever pulled a muscle and then gone to the gym or a yoga class that same day. Not the best decision—but you don’t necessarily have to stop moving altogether. There are plenty of holistic remedies that can help support the healing process. Here, pros share how to deal after pulling a muscle.
What Is A Pulled Muscle, Anyway?
Though certain parts of the body are strained more often than others, you can strain any muscle in your body if you put more load on it than it can handle or you stretch it beyond its normal range of motion, says physical therapist June Srisethnil, P.T., D.P.T., O.C.S., of CityPT. “When this happens, muscle fibers tear, resulting in a muscle pull or strain,” she explains.
According to DeDaria, the majority of us will experience a muscle strain at least once (if not more) in our lifetime—and it’s important to take care when it happens in order to prevent chronic pain.
Do’s And Don’ts to Keep In Mind After Pulling A Muscle
Depending on how severe a muscle strain is, it can take anywhere from a few days to six weeks to heal, DeDaria says. Here’s what you can do to ease the discomfort and promote healing during that time.
DO: Consult with an expert right away if you’re in Serious pain
Let’s get this out of the way: Sometimes, pulled muscles can be severe and require urgent care. “Strained muscles come in varying degrees of severity from mild (Grade I) to severe (Grade III), based on how much of the muscle is torn,” says Srisethnil. While a mild (Grade I) strain can heal in a few weeks, a Grade III strain means that a muscle is a severely injured muscle, requires urgent medical attention, and usually needs months to recover.
Though muscle strains are often fairly minor, speaking with a professional such as a doctor of physical therapy (DPT), sports medicine doctor, or orthopedist is still never a bad idea if you’re in pain, Srisethnil says.
“Re-injury rates are high without proper rehabilitation; a major risk factor for muscle strains is a history of having had one,” she cautions. “A physical therapist can create a comprehensive rehabilitation program for you that includes an evaluation of the injury and your lifestyle, education about the injury and healing process, and exercises that address whole-body and specific muscle strength deficits, strength imbalances, and neuromuscular control.”
DO: Use Ice, Then Heat
“Ice is a great form of treatment for an acute muscle strain,” says physical therapist Amy Graber, P.T., D.P.T., co-owner of Fit Family Physical Therapy. “Ice allows for a reduction in the cellular inflammation that can occur post-injury. It also dampens our nervous system to promote temporarily reduced pain.”
For the first couple of days after pulling a muscle, DeCaria recommends icing it two to four times a day for 15 to 20 minutes each time. After that, she advises switching from ice to heat. Apply a heating pad or a warm washcloth for 15 minutes in the morning and another 15 minutes in the evening. “It can also be used intermittently throughout the day, as needed; just be careful not to burn yourself,” she says.
DON’T: Stay in bed around the clock
You may be tempted to spend a few days watching Netflix after pulling a muscle. However, Graber cautions individuals not to rely on complete rest following a muscle strain. “While some degree of rest is important, this can mean ‘rest’ relative to your typical activity level rather than complete, immobile rest,” she says. “Immobility for prolonged duration can result in atrophy of other muscle fibers and surrounding musculature that can place you at greater risk of injury once you return to your prior level of activity”.
While it’s important to properly immobilize and take the load off of your injured muscle immediately, it’s also important to find other ways to stay active, Srisethnil says. For example, if you strained your calf or hamstring muscle, you can still do seated or supine upper-body and core exercises, or swim without kicking (perhaps using a flotation belt). “As long as your body movements are not painful to the injured muscle, you are resting it,” she says. “Too often, we see athletes stop their workouts completely to ‘rest their leg’ and end up losing flexibility and body conditioning.”
DO: Consider a magnesium supplement
For this reason, “it is worthwhile to discuss magnesium supplementation with your doctor, as it has been shown to help with muscle soreness,” DeCaria notes. The average adult man needs 400 to 420 milligrams of magnesium per day, while the average adult woman needs 310 to 320, according to the National Institutes of Health (NIH).
DO: Take warm bath Epsom salt baths
Speaking of magnesium, magnesium sulfate—better known as Epsom salt—can be a great addition to a bath when you have a pulled muscle. “A warm bath with Epsom salt can help ease muscles,” says DeCaria.
In addition to the magic of the magnesium, the hot water itself can also help to relax your muscles, she adds. Bonus points for using an essential oil like lavender (or lavender-infused bath salts), which can promote even further relaxation.
DO: Try topical menthol
“I am a big fan of menthol-based products for muscle strains,” says DeCaria. Research suggests that cooling menthol (the active compound in peppermint) can help to ease muscle discomfort and soreness.
Not sure what to use? Try MikaNaturals Arnica & Yucca Gel, which also contains menthol and peppermint to help cool and relax sore muscles and ease everyday aches and pains.
DON’T: Try to Stretch or Exercise the Pain away
While stretching can be helpful later on in the rehab process, after you’ve regained some comfortable mobility, it’s a no-go early on.
“Resist the urge to overstretch a strained muscle, which can cause changes in muscle tissue and increase scar tissue formation, preventing the typical tissue healing needed for muscle fiber regeneration,” says Graber.
It’s equally important to avoid the desire to exercise through the pain as it is to stretch the pain away. “Returning to your sport or vigorous activity with the strained muscle too soon can delay recovery, or, worse, create further injury to the muscle tissue,” says Srisethnil. The best way to know if you’re ready to return to specific exercises or your sport is to consult an expert, like a physical therapist.