We’ve all woken up the next day after a substantial strength training session, long run, or trying out a new fitness routine with stiff, sore muscles. That’s because exercising creates microscopic tears in your tissue that, once they heal, make your muscles stronger and bigger. But sometimes those tears are a little bit too big, which can happen if you stretch past your flexibility level, lift too much weight, or overwork tired muscles. In those cases, you can say hello to a pulled muscle.
Also known as muscle strains, pulled muscles range from low-to-high severity with a Grade 1 to a Grade 3 ranking, says physical therapist Dr. Nate Deblauw. And a pulled muscle will feel different than your run-of-the-mill post-workout soreness, adds physical therapist Dr. Julia Glick. Soreness feels general and can cover a large area of your body, whereas you might feel localized pain when it comes to a muscle strain or injury.
So what can you do to heal your muscle and get back to 100 percent so you can get back to your favorite forms of movement? Ahead, we’ve rounded up the best ways to treat a pulled muscle from home with the help of these physical therapists. As a note though, be sure to check in with your doctor before self-treating if you hear or feel a pop in your muscle, your pain is severe, or you notice visible changes in the affected area, says Deblauw. Glick recommends seeing a physical therapist or other medical professional if your symptoms don’t improve by at least 90 percent within two weeks, or even sooner if your symptoms interfere with daily life.
If the acronym RICE sounds vaguely familiar from your school nurse back in the day, that’s because it’s a tried and true method to battle discomfort and injury. RICE stands for rest, ice, compression, and elevation. Deblauw recommends resting the injured muscle by avoiding heavy exercise or activities that cause discomfort. Ice the muscle for 15-20 minutes at a time to reduce inflammation and bruising, he says, taking breaks in between ice bags to let your skin return to a normal temperature. Compress the affected muscle with an elastic wrap to try to keep inflammation to a minimum. Finally, elevate the injured area to decrease swelling. You can even do double duty and elevate while you ice, says Deblauw.
Try Over-the-Counter Anti-Inflammatories
There’s a reason you always have a Costco-sized bottle of Advil tucked away in your medicine cabinet. If your pulled muscle is causing you discomfort, take an over-the-counter anti-inflammatory medicine to help relieve aches, says Deblauw. He also recommends keeping an eye on how you’re feeling. If you’re in severe pain or notice swelling, bruising, deformity, or significant muscle weakness in the area, this could be a signal that you’re dealing with something more serious, according to Deblauw. If that’s the case, then taking ibuprofen won’t cut it—it’s time to see the doctor.
A Massage Might Be Just What the Doctor Ordered
There’s nothing better than a prescription for a massage. Deblauw suggests a professional or self-massage, which can help loosen your muscles and promote healing in the area. Some light foam rolling could likewise help, though if it causes any pain, stop, says Glick. The best part? Bonus points for relaxation as you tend to your pulled muscle.
Stretch (Always, Always)
While you can pull a muscle from overstretching it, some light stretching may actually help your strained muscle ease back into motion, explains Deblauw. Resting a pulled muscle for too long can cause stiffness or weakness, and easy stretching can give your muscle the gentle activity it needs to stay spry, according to research in the journalTranslational Medicine @UniSa. That said, If you feel any pain while you stretch, scale back and let your muscle rest.
Stretching could also help prevent future muscle strain, according to research published in the journal Sports Medicine. Warming up your muscles before you hit the gym floor can help prime your muscles to power you through your workout, and stretching afterwards can help you cool down and stay limber.
Try Light Exercise
Though it may seem counterintuitive to keep moving when it’s exercise that caused the pulled muscle in the first place, some light activity can help restore strength and flexibility to your muscle, says Deblauw.
And light means light—try not to push it with a full workout, even if it’s not your max effort. “Gentle movement, like going on a walk or light swimming, can be helpful if they feel good,” says Glick. “Avoid things that increase pain for more than a few minutes after performance or cause sharp pain during. You do not want to aggressively stretch a strain muscle, as that is essentially what caused the injury.”
If you’re experiencing sharp, direct pain in your muscle after a tough workout, it’s likely that you’re dealing with a pulled muscle instead of general soreness, according to our expets. Rest, pain medicine, massages, and light activity can all help ease your discomfort and promote healing, but be sure to see a medical professional if the pain is severe or persists. Though it can be tough to sit on the sidelines, take it from the experts when they say that you’ll thank yourself for taking the time to heal.
Maffulli N, Del Buono A, Oliva F, et al. Muscle Injuries: A Brief Guide to Classification and Management. Transl Med UniSa. 2014;12:14-18.
Woods K, Bishop P, Jones E. Warm-up and Stretching in the Prevention of Muscular Injury. Sports Med. 2007;37(12):1089-1099. doi:10.2165/00007256-200737120-00006