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Muscle strain

A muscle strain is often confused with a sprain but it's actually quite simple. A strain occurs when a muscle is either overstretched or torn, normally as a result of vigorous exercise, whereas a sprain is a joint injury.


This page examines the causes, symptoms and triggers of muscle strains, and offers a wide range of home and herbal remedies. There is also a Q&A service where you can ask Sonia any questions you have about muscle strain.

Causes of strains

A strain occurs when muscle fibres are damaged from being overstretched or torn. As tendons are an integral part of muscles, strains may also involve tendon damage. Strains are sometimes referred to as a pulled muscle.

Strains occur as a result of overstretching a muscle due to excessive force. Common causes include sporting injuries, a fall or a sudden movement, or an attempt to lift a heavy object. Occasionally, repeated coughing can also strain muscles in the rib cage.

Strains can affect almost every muscle in the body. Common areas affected include the calf, thigh, back, shoulders and neck. A strain affecting the back or neck may lead to lower back or neck pain (a stiff neck).

Strains affecting the muscles at a joint such as the ankle may also be associated with damage to the ligaments—this is known as a sprain.

What’s the difference between a strain and a sprain?

A sprain is damage to joint ligaments. Muscles and ligaments are interdependent in forming the structure of many joints. Consequently, injuries to the ankle, knee or shoulder can result in both strains and sprains. This is why the terms are often used together.

Typical symptoms of muscle strain include:

  • Pain while at rest, or when using the muscle
  • Joint stiffness (because pain limits the way the muscle works)
  • Bruising, which can lead to local swelling if severe

Severe swelling of the injured area or an abnormal appearance or deformity of the injured muscle can indicate a more severe condition such as a muscle tear. If you notice these symptoms, or if you have severe uncontrolled pain, seek medical help immediately.

What you can do

If possible, treat the muscle strain immediately after the injury to help reduce the symptoms experienced while you recover.

  • Cease the activity that has caused the muscle strain, and simply rest
  • Apply a cold compress to the injured area
  • If possible, elevate the affected body part

A simple form of cold compress is a pack of frozen peas wrapped in a towel. Continuing this treatment intermittently—10 minutes on, 10 minutes off—for up to 48 hours after injury can speed recovery.

Painkillers (either taken orally or in the form of creams or gels) can be used to control pain and inflammation.

For those who prefer to use herbal remedies, Absolüt Arnica Gel can provide pain relief following muscle strains in both the acute and recovery phases. It can also help lessen the bruising that often accompanies such injuries.

What do you think?

Have you found what you read useful? If so, I would love if you would leave your comment below. Thanks Sonia Chartier

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