How Do I Know If I Pulled a Muscle?

How Do I Know If I Have a Pulled Muscle?

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The day after an intense workout can feel rough, especially if you really pushed your limits. But it shouldn’t derail your daily routine. Experiencing achy muscles or sluggishness is normal, but you should still be able to function.

If, instead, you find yourself wobbling out of bed with super tight legs or get a shooting pain when reaching in the cabinet for your coffee mug, it’s time you address the source — and cause — of your discomfort.

Two experts — Shawn G. Anthony, assistant professor of Sports Medicine and Orthopedic Surgery at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai in NYC and Jordan Metzl, sports medicine physician at the Hospital for Special Surgery and author of Workout Description — reveal the different types of muscle injuries, plus how to prevent and treat them. Check ‘em out so you can continue running those sprints or swinging some kettlebells.

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The 3 Main Types of Muscle Injuries

1. Delayed Onset Muscle Soreness (DOMS)

Granted, this is one way your body repairs itself (so don’t expect a note from your doctor!). It usually involves that hurts-so-good feeling you experience after a workout, typically 24 to 48 hours post-exercise. The discomfort might include tenderness, tiredness, achiness or a clenched feeling in the muscle. There may be varying levels of soreness depending on whether your workout was part of your normal fitness routine, incorporated new, intense movements or you just got back in the game after a fitness hiatus.

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2. Muscle Cramp

You’ve likely felt this sharp ache that occurs during or after exercise and is isolated to a single muscle group. “Cramps occur suddenly, and usually come and go over a short period of time,” Anthony explains. Possible culprits: over or under hydrating, improper nutrition (particularly during a long endurance workout) and muscle fatigue.

3. Muscle Strain (or Pulled Muscle)

You’ll know you have a muscle strain — also known as a pulled muscle — because it will typically occur acutely and suddenly during exercises. This might happen during an eccentric, downward movement or explosive sprinting. “Usually an athlete can point to a specific rep or activity that caused it,” says Anthony. Experts categorized these injuries on a specific grade level (1 to 3), depending on severity and the percentage of muscle fiber tears.

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5 Main Causes of Muscle Injuries and How to Prevent Them

So what landed you in the muscle aching boat in the first place? It could come down to a few things, according to Anthony and Metzl. Learn the causes of a pulled muscle, cramps and DOMS, plus how to keep them from happening.

1. Lack of Flexibility

Mobility, along with a good warm-up and cool down, is so important to avoid all types of muscle injuries. Those pre- and post- workout rituals could include foam rolling, using a lacrosse ball to help loosen soft tissue in the muscle or stretching. “Warming up cold muscles for 5 to 10 minutes increases blood flow to the muscles,” says Anthony. (To learn more about the types of dynamic stretches to do pre-workout, read this guide, and for ideas on foam rolling, check out these five must-do moves.)

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2. Older Age

A decrease in muscular strength as you age can increase your risk for DOMS and a pulled muscle. Continue to build weak muscles as you age (strength training is especially important as you get older), and listen to your body if something feels wrong.

3. Prior or Ongoing Injury

If you’ve experienced IT band syndrome, tendonitis or a prior ACL tear, chances are these injuries resurface if you don’t address them properly. Muscular imbalances and tightness can also make you overcompensate and end up with a more serious strain. While sleeves or wraps can tame aches and prior injuries, they can also provide a false sense of security, says Metzl, who advises against them. Instead, see a doctor who can help you avoid relapse.

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4. Muscle Fatigue

Strenuous workout regimens or training camps may create muscle fatigue and increase risk for DOMS, cramps and strains, says Anthony. If you’re lifting heavy weights or turning up the volume on your sprints, just make sure to maintain proper form and stop when that really starts to suffer. In addition, it’s important not to overwork one single muscle. Add a variety of movements to your workout routine so that all muscle groups get an even workout and have time to recover.

5. Dehydration and Poor Nutrition

Water does more than quench your thirst after a workout — it fuels your muscles, too, keeping them from getting sore or cramping. You should always hydrate pre-, during and post-workout for injury prevention, says Anthony. “Research shows there is a nutrition window for recovery for 45 minutes,” he adds. “Having carbs along with protein helps build glycogen stores and promote muscle recovery.”

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Do I Keep Exercising, Take a Break or See a Doctor?

Trust your body, learn your own activity threshold and use common sense, urges Metzl. Treatment all depends on the seriousness of the injury. (Of course, a doctor can always help you figure out how serious it is.) If your aches are messing with your usual movement patterns, you probably want to get it checked out. “Moving very differently than you’re supposed to can cause another injury,” says Metzl. “But, if it’s not problematic, keeping moving is OK.”

Most importantly: You know your body the best, so if something starts to feel off, don’t wait to take care of it.

In some cases, anti-inflammatory medication, such as Tylenol, can help alleviate pain caused by overuse injuries like tendonitis, especially in the knees and quadriceps. But know there’s no evidence that it’ll expedite recovery, says Anthony. Another get-better method includes RICE: rest, ice, compression and elevation. This helps with strains (like those in the hamstring or calf), tendonitis and ankle sprains.

Pay attention to your body and let any ache that’s been bothering you for a while guide you in figuring out what to do. “If your leg muscle pull is causing you to run differently or your shoulder mechanics are off during swimming, you might want to schedule an appointment with your physician,” Metzl says. After all, it’s always best to err on the side of caution, so you can recover and get back out there.

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