Mind & Body

What Happens When You Pull a Muscle?

We've all done it: you're playing a pickup game of soccer or trying a cool new kickboxing class when all of a sudden, you feel a sharp pain in your leg — and you're down for the count. You pulled a muscle. But what does that mean, exactly?

You're a Little Late, I'm Already Torn

To understand what happens when you pull a muscle, you first have to understand muscle tissue itself. You have three types of muscles, including cardiac, skeletal, and visceral.

Cardiac and visceral muscles are the ones that keep your body's processes running smoothly, controlling things like your circulation and digestion without any input from you.

Skeletal muscle is the only type you can control, and generally the only type you can injure. Those muscles attach to tendons at each end, and each of those attaches to a bone. All muscles are made up of thousands-to-millions of tiny muscle fibers that contract by shortening in response to nerve stimulation, thereby letting you kick a soccer ball or throw some jazz hands.

Technically, a pulled muscle, a muscle strain, and even a ruptured or severed muscle are all just different degrees of the same injury: that is, tearing of the muscle fibers, which physicians refer to as a strain. A strain can happen in the muscle itself, where the tendon attaches to the bone, or, most often, where the muscle meets the tendon. Here's how the types of injuries differ:

  • Pulled muscle: also known as a grade 1 strain, this happens when less than five percent of the muscle fibers are torn. It can be pretty painful and you'll feel some weakness in the pulled muscle, but with rest, you should be back to normal in two to three weeks.
  • Strained muscle: This is the term most people would use for a grade 2 strain, which involves more tearing than a pulled muscle without a complete rupture. You'd feel the kind of pain and weakness that would take two to three months to heal.
  • Ruptured muscle: This is a grade 3 strain, and as bad as it gets. A ruptured muscle is completely severed, and sometimes can require surgery to reattach the muscle or tendon.

Check Yourself Before You Wreck Yourself

Of course, knowing what a pulled muscle is doesn't exactly help you prevent one from happening. You don't even need to be doing anything particularly amazing to pull a muscle — any abrupt, awkward movement, like lifting something heavy, slipping and falling, or opening your mouth too wide to yawn (true story).

Some muscle strains are unavoidable, but the ones you could experience on the playing field or in the dance studio might be prevented with a good warmup. And by that, we mean moving around, not standing still holding a few stretches. We've written before about how static stretching is no good for warming up your muscles, and can actually be a hindrance. Instead, a light jog, some jumping jacks, or a few arm and leg swings can limber you up for the day's exercise.

What if it happens anyway? While your first instinct is probably to stretch a pulled muscle, don't. You injured your muscle by stretching it until it tore. Why would stretching it again help?

Instead, your best bet is R.I.C.E.: rest, ice, compression, and elevation. A pulled muscle generally involves some inflammation, so an anti-inflammatory like ibuprofen can help too. But while rest is important, keeping the muscle limber is as well, so as soon as you're feeling up to it, very gradually increase your activity level. Listen to your body, and only start up again when the pain is gone.

To warm up the right way, check out Dynamic Stretching: The Revolutionary New Warm-up Method to Improve Power, Performance and Range of Motion by Mark Kovacs. If you make a purchase through that link, Curiosity will get a share of the sale, which helps support the work that we do.

Muscles 101

Written by Ashley Hamer December 11, 2017

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