Image of a 3d foot
March 28, 2017

Muscle Strains: Pain, Myths and Misconceptions

Jamie Fullerton
Head Physiotherapist
Lady performing exercise using resistant band
Believe it or not muscle pain is still a subject surrounded by mystery.

A torn muscle is one of the most medically neglected injuries. Yet it is extremely common. And often, your local GP or family doctor will not have specialised in this area of medical practice, which can sometimes lead to misdiagnosis.

Though most muscle pain is relatively simple to self-treat, an incredible number of people seek help for muscle strains that have been diagnosed as something else, or they do in fact have ‘something else’ which has been misdiagnosed as a muscle strain.

Pain, spasm, contracture, scar tissue, tone, tension, stiffness and strains are all poorly understood and routinely confused with one another, even by medical professionals.

So what is a muscle strain?

Actually, it's simple:

Any torn muscle is called a muscle strain. And this is the same as a pulled muscle.

Although you may have problems which make you vulnerable to a muscle strain, the direct cause of every muscle strain is traumatic ripping of the muscle tissue, usually at the meeting point of the muscle and its tendon. Muscle will tear under the force of your own muscular contraction, or excessive stretch.

The more muscle fibres are torn, the worse the strain is. In the case of a serious strain, the entire muscle may completely rupture, i.e. literally rip in half (ouch!) Total ruptures are serious injuries and are much worse than partial ruptures.

But Before we get into more detail about what muscle strain definition, the complications of a strain and how to treat the problem, it’s important to determine whether or not you actually have a muscle strain, or something else altogether.

How do you know that you’ve got a muscle strain?

Muscle strains, especially muscle ruptures, are actually surprisingly rare compared to other causes of muscle related pain and many people reading this will remember a time when they thought (rightly or wrongly) that they strained a muscle but never sought help. In contrast, a large amount of people reading this will have questioned their muscle strain diagnoses if they did see a medical professional.

Some of the things that get confused with muscle strains are:

  • Muscle cramps and spasms are whole muscle contractions, ranging from uncomfortable to those howling, awful attacks that usually afflict the calves and feet.
  • Nasty muscle knots, technically known as trigger points, are small patches of localised muscle spasm and involve no actual damage to the muscle.
  • Delayed onset muscle soreness, a.k.a. DOMS, is that savage muscle soreness we all get after an unfamiliar workout… But it always fades after about three days, guaranteed (if it doesn’t then it isn’t DOMS).
  • Low back pain is a complex phenomenon which routinely gets attributed to muscle strain, yet that is rarely the cause. Just about the only time low back pain is ever caused by muscle strain is when you have a sudden, severe onset of pain while trying to move a heavy object.
True muscle strain checklist

Here’s a checklist of the signs and symptoms of a true pulled muscle. If you can say, ‘Yeah, that’s me’, to all or most of these then congratulations (or not) - you probably have an actual, real life, certifiable, muscle strain!

  • Did it hit you suddenly during strong stretching or a moment of athletic intensity? Were you lifting something way too danged heavy and/or awkward? In other words, did you have an “oh, shit” moment?
  • Is the injury fairly recent? A few weeks old at the most? If it’s been a long time, it’s probably not a muscle strain any more — certainly not an acute one!
  • Do you have just one muscle (or muscle group) that’s both weak and painful to use?
  • Is there a spot in the muscle that’s especially sensitive? (It may even be little bit deformed — is there a bump or a depression?)
  • Is the skin flushed and hot? Does it look puffy?

However, if you answered yes to many or all of the points in our above muscle strain checklist, you should book yourself in with a physiotherapist for a full consultation before the problem gets much worse!

If you would like to speak to one of our sports physiotherapy specialists please call 0151 559 1107 or visit our Book Now page for information on Treatment Table appointment locations and times.

Are you struggling with an injury or pain that has been troubling you for too long?