When this is the case, it’s like a car accident on a freeway – nothing can move. If you don’t have a tow truck to clear some wreckage, you can wait as long as you want, but the traffic remains jammed.
Rest is good once the body’s healing ability is enabled. Then the body can leverage the time, using it to assist recovery.
Perhaps the most commonly suggested method for pulled muscle recovery is icing. It is often prescribed with compression and elevation as R.I.C.E, which stands for rest, ice, compression and elevation.
The most beneficial time to ice is in the first 36-48 hours after the muscle pull. Initially, ice can help lessen swelling by cooling the injured tissue, which slows local circulation and fluid build-up. You want to try to keep swelling down, because a swollen muscle (or joint) does not heal well.
If you use ice, don’t do so for more than 15 minutes at a time, and keep moving the ice around a bit. If you ice for longer periods of time, you can chill your skin enough to get frostbite, which of course you don’t want!
Like many things, ice’s greatest strength is also its greatest weakness. Remember, ice slows circulation to your injury, which limits swelling. That’s good. However, circulation is what removes waste materials from damaged body tissue, and brings in oxygen and nutrients needed for repair – all of which are essential for healing. Ice slows this process, which is not good.
So ice is a double-edged sword. As long as you use it appropriately, in the initial stages of an injury or to calm inflammation or swelling, you should be OK.
Advantages: Free, all-natural, readily available, limits swelling.
Disadvantages: Slows circulation, needs to be carefully administered.
Heat. As you might expect, if ice slows circulation, heat increases it. Heat is not a good idea in the initial period after a muscle pull. Heat will tend to increase swelling, which will slow down the healing process.
So when should I apply heat? Once your muscle pull is feeling better, you can consider using heat to help warm up the muscle prior to exercise. The most common way is a hot water pack or a moist, wet towel.
Advantages: Free, all-natural, readily available, increases circulation.
Disadvantages: Can aggravate inflamed or swollen tissue. Do not use in the initial stages of injury recovery.
NSAIDS. Non-steroidal anti-inflammatories are another common method of recovery. If you don’t recognize the term, you’re no doubt familiar with their common names: aspirin, ibuprofen, naproxen, etc.
You take them in pill form, and they initially help to reduce inflammation. After this initial effect, the main action is to inhibit pain signals in the brain. In other words, your injury is still sending signals, but your brain is not listening.
The initial anti-inflammatory action can be good. The pain relief is usually beneficial as well, because no one likes pain. But realize that in essence you are killing the messenger; not addressing the root of the problem.
Generally speaking, inhibiting brain/body communication isn’t the best approach to health. NSAIDS can also have some side effects if you use them consistently. Nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, rashes and headaches are some of the most common. On the more serious side, they may elevate chances of kidney failure, liver failure and ulcers.
Cost: Typically Minimal
Advantages: Can have initial anti-inflammatory effects, and can inhibit pain transmitters in the brain.
Disadvantages: After initial effects, do not help injury directly. Some serious side effects from continuous use.
Ultrasound. Some professionals will employ ultrasound, and you can purchase a machine to do it on your own. Ultrasound is a form of heat therapy that uses high-frequency sound waves (that are too high to hear) to vibrate soft tissue. This heats the tissue. The intent is to promote circulation, which is essential for healing.
While ultrasound has been shown to help warm up and increase range of motion prior to physical activity in a non-injured joint, studies have yet to suggest results for most sports injury recovery. Despite this, it has recently become a fairly popular thing to do.
You can get a home ultrasound machine, but more typically it is administered by a trained professional. This is especially true for children under the age of 16, who should only receive ultrasound by a professional. There are a few cautions, in that you don’t want to use ultrasound over internal organs or areas that may be infected. Sports injury ultrasound should not be used by pregnant women.
Cost: $50 plus for a 15-minute session. $400 for a home unit.
Advantages: Helps warm tissue, which may increase circulation.
Disadvantages: Should typically be administered by a professional, which means scheduling an appointment.
Herbal Wraps. What are they? An herbal paste or plaster is wrapped onto the injury and worn for 12 hours, then discarded. Gaining recognition among pro and amateur athletes in the United States, these properly formulated East Asian herbal wraps have been known for centuries to help the body recover from muscle strains. When you sustain a pulled muscle, your body’s ability to circulate energy is interrupted and becomes imbalanced. In many cases, the affected area will essentially “shut down”, feeling both weak and painful. These wraps function by promoting energy circulation and by removing toxins that can inhibit recovery processes.
Doctor, chiropractor or acupuncturist. Aside from the above self-treatment options, you can visit a practitioner, such as a doctor, chiropractor or acupuncturist. If you suspect that your injury is serious, it is a good idea to have it checked out by a doctor. Signs that your injury is serious include excessive or sharp pain, numbness, a lot of swelling and/or a minimal range of motion.
The obvious benefit of finding an expert is that you can get a specific diagnosis. Often the prescribed pulled muscle treatment is one of the methods described above. Often the cost will be covered by health insurance, although you can be responsible for a co-payment.
For more information on treatment for specific muscle injuries read >>