What to Do For ‘Pulled’ Muscles or Strains – and How to Prevent Them!
Have you ever been playing a sport or doing your favorite activity when suddenly a muscle goes into spasm and quite literally “grabs” your attention and steals your movement mojo?
There is one thing you absolutely MUST do to recover quickly – and one thing you must NOT do.
I’ll get to those in a moment.
First, it’s important to understand WHY strains happen, because – while I am sure some of you are here and currently experiencing a strain or pulled muscle – I am hoping the rest of you will use this information to prevent this from happening in the first place (can we make prevention sexy please?!)
In order to understand why and how a strain happens, we have to understand how muscles work.
Reciprocal inhibition – the key to understanding muscles and injury recovery/prevention!
I’ve had my eye on this process for over 5 years as a guiding touchstone for how to help people in pain and it’s never failed me. I’ll certainly do an entire episode dedicated to just this because the topic seems sorely lacking in the field of pain relief and injury recovery/prevention; but for now we’ll explore it in relationship to strains and pulled muscles.
Reciprocal inhibition is a process by which opposing muscle groups (and the nerves that act on them) work synergistically on a joint: one group flexes that joint while the other extends it.
In order for one muscle or group to contract, the opposing muscle or group MUST relax and stretch.
The simplest example of this is: when you contract your hamstrings your quad has to stretch and relax, right? The opposite is true as well: in order to stretch the quads, the hamstring must contract. (Think of a standing quad stretch).
How this relates to muscle strains:
If the process of reciprocal inhibition is restricted by a muscle or muscle group that is too strong and tight compared to its opposite, then a dangerous scenario of two opposing muscle groups contracting at the same time is possible – and this is when a tear is likely to happen.
For example, if the quads fail to relax and stretch while the hamstring contracts, you might experience hamstring cramping, a pulled hamstring or a hamstring tear.
The body has other processes in place to prevent the worst case scenario – a tear.
The most common is the stretch reflex.
A stretch reflex occurs in a muscle that your body or brain detects is being stretched too far (and is in danger of tearing), so nerve signals are sent to powerfully contract those tissues or “pull them back” where they belong. The “pulling” can occur as a cramp/spasm or full on strain (the former will recover immediately, the latter takes more time).
The most common strains occur in the calves, hamstrings, groin, low back and traps (neck muscles), but they can happen anywhere.
This used to happen to me ALL the time whenever my trainer had me perform an acute hamstring curl. My quads are SO dominant, strong and tight compared to my super flexible hamstrings that whenever I tried to contract my hamstrings my quads wanted to stay contracted and thus a stretch reflex occurred to get me OUT of this dangerous scenario (where a tear was likely) as quickly as possible: a fast, painful spasm or cramp in my hamstrings would happen. Thankfully I never experienced a hamstring tear. (And because I know what I’m about to tell you, I don’t experience hamstring cramping anymore!)
What you must NOT do:
Whatever you do, do NOT stretch the strained muscle!
We have SUCH a strong tendency to go to what hurts and either comfort it, stretch it or beat it up, but IT IS NOT THE PROBLEM. It’s already traumatized believing it was about to get overstretched and torn.
Once you’ve taken care of the problem you can go to the muscle and help it relax, but this should be the LAST thing you do.
I also don’t recommend the old RICE protocol – rest, ice, compression and elevation – nor do I recommend ICE alone. In fact I don’t like ice for ANY injury! This theory is based on outdated science that has been debunked, and icing may even make things worse – in my opinion and the opinions of other professionals I trust and respect. See this for starters (and the internet is full of other doctors saying the same thing).
So…what to do instead?
DO THIS to jump-start the healing process of a strain:
Release the fascia within the opposing muscle or muscle group(s) and/or use PFN stretching to relax the opposing muscle or muscle groups.
This is the surest bet you have of getting that strained or pulled muscle to chill out.
The strain is inevitably due to overly strong or hypertonic tissue in whatever muscle or muscle group is opposite it.
In order for the strained muscle to get the message that it can chill out and ‘stretch’ back to its normal shape, it needs to know (via nerve communication and reinforcing proper reciprocal inhibition) that its opposite is relaxed and not overly contracted or hypertonic.
Both muscles need to be able to contract AND relax for each to stay healthy.
If you want to recover as quickly as humanly possible, release the fascia in ALL the surrounding muscles of the strain (but DON’T go to that muscle yet!)
This will help blood flow and nerve communication, and that muscle should start getting the message that it can relax now.
Then, help the strained muscle relax – DO THIS LAST!
This is fairly simple: go to the strained muscle and use an appropriate to that muscle tool (foam roller or lacrosse ball being the two major tools I use), and GENTLY compress the tissue while GENTLY move through the greatest range of motion possible without any hint of pain. (If pain happens while doing this, STOP!)
This is NOT a must do. You can certainly leave the muscle alone and it will chill out on its own.
Obviously (I hope this is obvious) I am not addressing any particular strain in this post, so it’ll be up to you to use this information to benefit YOU and whatever situation you find yourself in.
If you need to google whatever muscle is strained and then again for its opposite…no shame in that! If you have any questions please comment here or on Facebook.
Experiencing a muscle strain or pulled muscle can be really frustrating! There’s no actual injury, no tear, but it can often stop us from our activities for weeks. Use what you’ve learned today and recover faster, better, and then…prevent them from ruining your movement mojo ever again!
If you take care of your body, it will take care of you.