How to treat a pulled muscle and get back to the gym

Posted by for Strong Women

Wondering how to treat a pulled muscle? Fitness writer and trained PT Miranda Larbi has the answer and it involves RICE. 

There’s nothing like starting the new year with ambitious fitness goals, only to keel over in pain 10 minutes into your workout because you’ve pulled a muscle. 

Strained muscles are no joke. They can be excruciatingly painful and if left untreated can cause all kinds of problems going forward. But that’s not to say that you can’t do something about them from the comfort of your own home - and avoid muscles injuries altogether. 

Strains tend to happen when you’ve overworked a muscle or have used incorrect form (check out @StrongWomenUK for tips on proper alignment). While tears can be serious, it’s safe to say that most pulled muscles feel worse than the damage may actually be. Symptoms of a pulled muscle include swelling, spasms and feelings of stiffness. As horrible as it sounds, a pulled muscle might even feel like you’ve snapped it in half. 

How to treat a pulled muscle at home

First things first, don’t panic. The best thing you can do is to get yourself to a physio who can confirm just how severe the strain is and if you actually need medical attention. If you don’t, they’ll also be able to prescribe you movements to keep the limb agile while the muscle recovers. 

Secondly, remember the acronym: RICE. 

R - rest. A no-brainer: stop exercising that muscle for a while.

I - ice. Grab a bag of frozen peas and put it on the affected area for 20 minutes, twice a day for at least a week. Not only will it dull the pain but it’ll also reduce inflammation and tissue damage.

C - compress. Applying pressure also helps keep down inflammation. You can get cold compresses which mean you can apply pressure and ice at the same time, or simply grab a few elastic bands and towels and create a makeshift compress yourself. 

E - elevate. Try to keep your pulled muscle elevated - in a sling or lying on the sofa with your leg on lots of pillows, for example.

Problems with pulled muscles tend to arise when we leave things too long. If you feel something go mid-training session, don’t wait until the end of the day or after you’ve managed to find a physio to do something about it - get going on the rehab immediately. Using that muscle is only going to make matters worse so if you think you’ve pulled it, start treating it and then get medical help if things aren’t improving after a week. 

When to see a doctor

If after 48 hours of practicing the RICE method you’re still in a lot of pain, it’s time to see a professional. If you heard or felt a ‘pop’ in the affected area when you did the injury, it’s also probably worth making an emergency appointment. 

Back strains can be more of a worry than other muscles so if you think you’ve pulled something in your back while lifting, then that’s definitely not something you should ignore. Any mild back pain that feels like it’s getting worse after 48 hours is something a doctor needs to look at - as is back pain that’s accompanied by any tingling, numbness or fever. 

• Ongoing or worsening pain, 48 hours after injury

• You’ve developed a fever/chills

• There’s a tingling or numbness in your leg

• You’re having difficulty peeing / controlling bowel movements

Woman working out in gym
How to treat a pulled muscle: advice from a PT

How to avoid an injury

Sometimes injuries happen - seemingly apropos of nothing - and you’ve just got to take it as a sign from the universe to slow down. But there are things you can do to protect your body before and after exercise to massively reduce the risk of injury. 

At a time when the fitness industry is all about pushing ourselves to our physical and mental limits, it’s worth remembering your own limitations. Overworking is the quickest way of doing yourself an injury so whatever you do, don’t be tempted to ‘go hard or go home’ when you know that you’ve already done enough exercise - just go home. No one should guilt trip you into working out.

Watch your posture

Lots of injuries are caused by poor posture - shoulders that aren’t retracted, curved spines, locked knees. If you’re at the gym, watch yourself in the mirror to make sure that you’re not collapsing and if in doubt, ask one of the roaming PTs to watch you for a minute.  If you’re off doing cardio, remember to stand or sit up tall.

Get assessed

If you’re prone to niggles while out running, go somewhere like ProFeet where the experts can assess your gait and see what’s hampering your style. It could be that your trainers aren’t suited to your body and they’re causing you to overpronate or move oddly - putting your muscles at risk. 

Listen to your body when it’s tired and becoming overworked

Give yourself at least two rest days a week, and schedule in extra after particularly brutal sessions.

Rest is also important for your mental health. 

Gradually increase your workout load

Whether you’re training for your first marathon after years of daily jogging, or you’re totally new to exercise, loading matters. 

Lifting too much or covering too many miles too soon is only going to end in disaster - if your body isn’t used to that level of exercise, it won’t know how to cope. Be sure to come up with a workout plan that allows you to increase the intensity little by little

Warm up and cool down before and after every session

Warm ups should last up to 15 minutes and include dynamic stretching (i.e stretches that get you moving - walking lunges, walk outs with shoulder taps, heart crawls), while cool downs can be between five and ten minutes. 

Keep moving but slow things down and swap to static stretching (e.g. your standard stretch moves that you can do on the spot). 

If it hurts, stop

There are different kinds of pain when it comes to exercise; there’s the good aching you get a day or two after smashing a session (known as DOMS - delayed onset muscle soreness), and then there’s the bad ‘ouch, something’s not right’ pain. If you’re at all in doubt about which kind of pain you’re in, stop and rest. At the very worst, you’ll give your muscles a chance to repair themselves. Remember, no gains were ever lost due to a few days’ rest.

How to get back into training, post-injury

Pulling a muscle is enough to put you off going back into the gym for a long time. It can take between four and six weeks for muscles to become fully healed so if you have done yourself a mischief, then don’t be in a rush to get back into whatever exercise you were doing when the incident occurred. Use the time to focus on other muscle groups.

If you’ve pulled your hamstring, for example, there’s nothing to stop you from doing upper body workouts. But that’s not to say that you should stop moving the affected limb altogether. Swap resistance for mobility workouts like yoga and Reformer Pilates, where you can talk to the instructor about your injury and they can advise on any necessary alterations.

If it’s your leg that’s affected, definitely give the running a miss for a while - try swimming and the good old cross trainer instead. As you build your confidence back up, head into a spin class for a low-impact, high-intensity cardio blast. After about four weeks, try going for a short, slow jog and see how it feels.

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Images: Getty

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Miranda Larbi

Miranda Larbi is a freelance fitness and wellness journalist, and qualified personal trainer. When she’s not finding new vegan places to eat, she can be found training for the next marathon or cycling across London on an old Dutchie.

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