What Causes Muscle Strain? - PT Effect

What Causes Muscle Strain?

Learn how to prevent muscle strains
Read Time: 6 min
May 24, 2021

Muscle strains put a damper on not just your workout regiment but also your daily life. Muscle strains are the most common form of injury in athletes. Though anyone can get them, and they can take weeks to heal. However, they aren’t just caused by sports or intense exercise. Muscle strains can result from everyday activities, too. But what, exactly, is a muscle strain, and what causes them?

What Is a Muscle Strain?

A muscle strain is an injury to a muscle or a tendon (the tissues that connect your muscles to your bones). A muscle strain can also be described as a muscle pull. Although the words sprain and strain are often used interchangeably, they’re different. A sprain affects the ligaments (the tissues that connect your bones to each other) instead of the muscles or tendons. A muscle tear is also a type of strain, but is typically more severe and involves a rip in the muscle or tendon.

What Are the Symptoms of a Muscle Strain?

The most common symptoms of a muscle strain are:

  • Swelling
  • Bruising
  • Redness
  • Inability to use the affected muscle
  • Pain when the affected muscle or tendon is used
  • Pain even when the affected muscle is at rest
  • Muscle or tendon weakness
  • Limits in range of motion
  • Stiffness
  • Muscle spasms
Woman holding her thigh while running

Should You Seek Medical Care for a Muscle Strain?

Most muscle strains are mild enough that you can treat them at home with rest, ice, compression, and elevation (RICE), as well as anti-inflammatory medication such as ibuprofen. However, some muscle strains and tears are severe and require medical attention. You should see a doctor if:

  • The swelling is severe
  • The pain is severe
  • You heard a popping sound when the strain occurred
  • You have open cuts from the injury
  • You have a fever
  • You can’t walk

Which Muscles Are Most Commonly Strained?

Any muscle in the body can be strained. However, the muscles that are most commonly strained are:

  • Lower back
  • Neck
  • Hamstring (muscles at the back of the thighs)
  • Shoulder

What Causes Muscle Strains?

Muscle strains are caused by a muscle becoming overstretched or even torn. Muscle strains can occur because of:

  • Repetitive motions
  • Muscle fatigue
  • Not warming up properly
  • Overuse of the muscle
  • Improperly using the muscle
  • Poor conditioning
  • Poor flexibility

When Can Muscle Strains Occur?

It’s a common misconception that muscle strains are only caused by vigorous activity, like sports or intense exercise. They can occur during normal activities, such as walking. Muscle strains can occur when you:

  • Run
  • Throw something
  • Slip or otherwise lose your footing
  • Jump
  • Lift something that’s heavy
  • Lift something from an awkward position
  • Stay in an awkward position for a long period of time
  • Repeat a motion many times
  • Have poor posture
Man holding his leg after a sports injury

What Causes Chronis Musle Strains?

Chronic muscle strains are caused by repetitive motions. This can be doing a sport that involves repetitive movements, like tennis, rowing, baseball, or golf. It can also be staying in the same position for a long period, like sitting at a desk for work.

How Can I Prevent Muscle Strains?

The following can help to prevent muscle strains:

  • Stretch daily
  • Warm up before working out
  • Warm up before any strenuous activity
  • Stretch after working out
  • Stretch after any strenuous activity
  • Start an exercise program (you may want to consult your doctor or physical therapist)
  • Change position
  • Keep good posture
  • Be careful to prevent falls
  • Wear shoes that fit correctly
  • Be careful when lifting heavy objects

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Mark Shulman

Dr. Mark Shulman

Doctor of Physical Therapy (DPT), FAAOMPT, COMT, CSCS

Founder

Fellow of the American Academy of Orthopaedic Manual Physical Therapists.


Mark Shulman

Dr. Allison McKay

Doctor of Physical Therapy (DPT), PRPC

Co-Founder


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