A muscle strain is when muscles or tendons tear or stretch. Many injuries—falls, sudden blows, overuse, and more—may strain muscles.1 No matter what causes a strain, it’s painful and inconvenient. Whether you strained your neck while parallel parking or pulled a groin muscle playing hockey, knowing how to treat the pain and swelling may help you recover more quickly and make you more comfortable.
Here are six options to help you treat your muscle strain:
1. Cold therapy
When you strain a muscle, even with a mild strain, the fibers in the tissue are damaged. This may cause immediate pain, inflammation in the muscle tissue, and swelling in the affected area. You can help combat these symptoms by applying cold to the injury, ideally as quickly as possible after it occurs.2,3 Continue applying cold several times a day for 20-30 minutes at a time. Some of the methods you can use are:
- Ice or gel packs.
- Cold-water baths.
- Cold therapy systems.
In most cases, an ice pack is the most readily available solution immediately after an injury. However, using a cold therapy system for the duration of your recovery may help with your recovery process because a cold therapy system applies continuous, uniform cold to help treat both pain and inflammation.2
Another way to help treat a pulled muscle is by applying pressure to the affected area. Compression helps reduce swelling and inflammation, which may intensify pain and slow healing.4 You can use static compression with an elastic bandage to apply consistent pressure and help prevent additional swelling. Active compression that creates a pumping action may provide additional benefits by helping your body remove excess fluid in the injured area and increasing the flow of freshly oxygenated blood, which is needed for tissue repair and healing.5
Therapeutic massage helps loosen tight muscles and increase blood flow to help heal damaged tissues. Applying pressure to the injured muscle tissue also helps remove excess fluid and cellular waste products.6 A 2012 study found that massage immediately following an injury may even speed strained muscle healing.7 If the area is too sensitive for massage, wait about a week and ask your doctor. Then begin massaging the injury and surrounding muscles to help with pain and improve range of motion.
4. Heat therapy
Heat therapy may help relieve pain after the initial swelling has subsided.5 You can apply therapeutic heat with:
- Electric hot pads.
- Warm baths or hot tubs.
- Hot cloths.
- Hot water bottles.
Heat also increases blood flow, which may promote healing.8 You can alternate hot and cold therapy to help reduce the pain and swelling caused by a muscle strain.
5. Physical therapy
During recovery from a muscle strain, it’s a good idea to try to stay active to prevent the surrounding muscles from weakening. Physical therapy can help promote muscle strength and healing, reducing the risk of re-injury.9 A physical therapist can show you stretching exercises that may help you maintain flexibility and range of motion. In some cases, you may also do strengthening exercises to build up supporting muscles to help reduce the risk of another muscle strain.
6. Pain medication
Muscle strains can be quite painful, and if you have injured a major muscle group, it may impact your ability to perform daily activities. You can relieve pain with over-the-counter medications like aspirin or NSAIDs, which may also help reduce swelling. For more extreme muscle strains, your doctor might recommend a short course of a stronger pain medication.10 As always, discuss any treatments with your doctor prior to beginning.
Try not to do anything that could reinjure a muscle, even when pain medication helps. For example, an athlete with a strained ankle may still need to avoid their sport for a few weeks, even if they’re no longer feeling pain.
Most muscle strains may be treated at home with a combination of the above methods. If the pain doesn’t decrease after a couple of days or if you are concerned about a more serious injury, it’s always a good idea to seek medical attention from a professional. When you speak to your doctor, ask about cold and compression therapy for your recovery.
- Muscle strains. Mayo Clinic. https://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/muscle-strains/symptoms-causes/syc-20450507. Published April 27, 2019.
- Brazier Y. Heat and cold treatment: which is best? Medical News Today. https://www.medicalnewstoday.com/articles/29108.php. Published July 25, 2017.
- Malanga GA, Yan N, Stark J. Mechanisms and efficacy of heat and cold therapies for musculoskeletal injury. Postgraduate Medicine. 2014;127(1):57-65. https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1080/00325481.2015.992719.
- Krans B. Muscle strain treatment. Healthline. https://www.healthline.com/health/muscle-strain-treatment. Published December 8, 2015.
- Mahoney E. Chapter 15: Therapeutic modalities for tissue healing. In: Bellew JW, Michlovitz SL, Nolan TP Jr., eds. Modalities for Therapeutic Intervention. 6th ed. Philadelphia, PA: F. A. Davis Company; 2010. https://fadavispt.mhmedical.com/content.aspx?bookid=1932§ionid=141709490.
- Removal of waste products. Physio.co.uk. https://www.physio.co.uk/treatments/massage/physiological-effects-of-massage/cellular-effects/removal-of-waste-products.php. Accessed May 22, 2019.
- Dallas ME. Massage right after muscle injury may boost healing. MedicineNet. https://www.medicinenet.com/script/main/art.asp?articlekey=159934. Published July 12, 2012.
- Ice versus heat. Fleet Feet Sports. http://fleetfeetmontgomery.com/resources/ice-versus-heat. Accessed May 10, 2019.
- Physical therapy for sprains and strains. UPMC HealthBeat. https://share.upmc.com/2014/03/physical-therapy-for-sprains-and-strains/. Published May 10, 2014.
- Harvard Health Publishing. Muscle strain. Harvard Health. https://www.health.harvard.edu/a_to_z/muscle-strain-a-to-z. Published December 2018.