A woman holding her back

Pulled muscles: why are they so common and how do you treat them?

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This one injury has become more common since lockdown – here’s how to prevent and treat it. 

It seems that lockdown took its toll on our bodies, with injuries at an all-time high during – and since – the pandemic began. With clinics shut, most of us consulted Dr Google: between July 2019 and July 2021, searches for pulled chest muscles were up 1157%, and pulled back and groin muscles up 929% and 875% respectively.

But wait, what exactly are ‘pulled’ muscles? “A pulled muscle occurs when the muscle fibres have been torn,” explains Karen Gambardella, senior physiotherapist at BUPA Health Clinics. While we regularly talk about ‘tearing’ tissue as being an important part of building strength, too much of a good thing is where an injury occurs. 

“Pulled muscles usually happen when you’ve stretched a muscle beyond its usual limits or contracted it too quickly. It’s different from delayed onset muscle soreness (DOMS), which isn’t really down to muscle tears – it’s believed to be caused by temporary microscopic damage to your muscle fibres, after they’ve worked harder or differently during exercise,” Gambardella explains.

The type of exercise you do can also put you at risk of pulls and strains: “They’re commonly the result of an ‘explosive’ movement when there’s been excessive force loaded onto the muscles during landing. This extra force leads to the muscle contracting and stretching simultaneously, which can result in a partial or complete tear,” she says. That includes moves such as jumping, boxing, and sprinting. Plus, while you might expect DOMS after you have finished exercising, a pulled or strained muscle is often felt at the time of injury – so any immediate pain is probably a sign of this kind of strain.

How to avoid a pulled muscle

“Although your muscles are built to stretch and contract, pushing them beyond their limits, too soon or too fast, can cause injury,” says Gambardella. That’s why she’s not surprised that these injuries were on the rise during and since lockdown. “With lots more of us embracing the great outdoors or exercising without supervision, we’re more likely to have pushed ourselves too hard or used a form or posture that wasn’t quite right for our activity.

A woman stretching her neck in activewear.
Pulling a muscle can be a result of too much, too soon.

“Groin muscle injuries are especially common during sports such as football and running – activities many of us took up whilst gyms were closed.” 

Overdoing any training during a home workout or diving too fast back into your old weight training routine are also to blame. “If it’s been a while since you’ve been to the gym, it’s important to remember that you won’t immediately be able to lift the same weights you used to,” she says.

So, the most important way to avoid tearing a muscle is to build up slowly. But not neglecting the warm-up is also crucial, as the body and joints need to be fully ready to take on those loads.

How to deal with a pulled muscle

Let’s reiterate that a pulled muscle is a type of strain and needs to be taken seriously. That means not attempting to keep up your usual workout routine, but resting or opting for gentle exercise. “A slow walk or swim, in most cases, will be fine in the two weeks after first feeling pain. However, be sure to avoid any strenuous exercise, like running, in the eight weeks after your injury – this helps to prevent further damage,” says Gambardella. 

If you are suffering from a pulled muscle, she also recommends the POLICE method:

Protect – Rest immediately afterwards to protect your muscle from further damage.

Optimal loading – After a day or two, start to gradually build up your range of movement and put your weight on the injury again – and do this sooner, rather than later. If your strain is severe, speak to a physiotherapist before attempting any loading.

Ice – Use an ice pack wrapped in a towel and apply to the painful area. Use your ice compress once every 20 minutes for a few hours a day in the first three days after injury.

Compression – If you can, use an elastic bandage or light compress around the area to help keep swelling down.

Elevate – Elevate your injury, ideally above or in line with your heart, to promote recovery and rest.

“If you’re suffering from a pulled muscle, look at your equipment and clothing – is it right for your activity? If your shoes or kit are looking worn or don’t feel right, be sure to replace it. Lastly, if you’re continually pulling muscles in the same area, speak to a physiotherapist – they can assess you to investigate potential causes of your recurring injury and help to devise an appropriate treatment plan with you,” adds Gamdardell. 

Images: Getty

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Chloe Gray

Chloe Gray is the senior writer for stylist.co.uk's fitness brand Strong Women. When she's not writing or lifting weights, she's most likely found practicing handstands, sipping a gin and tonic or eating peanut butter straight out of the jar (not all at the same time).