What is a Muscle Strain? - Definition, Causes, Symptoms & Treatment

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  • 0:03 Muscle Strain Definition
  • 0:55 Muscle Strain Causes & Types
  • 1:45 Muscle Strain Symptoms
  • 2:17 Muscle Strain…
  • 3:28 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Danielle Haak

Danielle has a PhD in Natural Resource Sciences and a MSc in Biological Sciences

There's often a lot of confusion about the difference between a muscle strain and a sprain. This lesson will explain the differences between the two and outline the causes, symptoms, and treatment options available for muscle strains.

Muscle Strain Definition

If you have ever played sports, chances are you have experienced a muscle strain injury. Even if you aren't an athlete, muscle strains are some of the most common injuries; however, this type of injury is often confused with a sprain, so let's start by clarifying the difference.

  • A strain is an injury that affects the muscle or the tendon. The tendon is the tissue that connects muscle to bone.
  • A sprain is an injury that affects a ligament. A ligament is connective tissue joining bones together.

In this lesson, we're specifically concerned with muscle strains, which can come in different types: the muscle itself can partially or completely tear, or the tendons can partially or completely tear. In any case, it's painful. You may also hear a strain referred to as a pulled muscle.

Muscle Strain Causes & Types

What exactly happens that causes a muscle strain? The most common places you may experience a strain are the neck, back, shoulder, and hamstring. Strains can happen if you begin to exercise without warming up properly (this is why we stretch) or if you lack flexibility or stamina. Sometimes, all it takes is one wrong move and you may accidentally strain a muscle. A sudden injury to the muscle causing a tear is called acute muscle strain.

Another type of strain is chronic muscle strain, and this occurs when you repeat a movement over and over again, eventually wearing down the muscles you're using in the process. If you've ever sat in place too long and gotten a sore neck, this could be one type of strain. Certain sports with repetitive motions can also lead to chronic muscle strains.

Muscle Strain Symptoms

You'll usually feel a muscle strain as soon as it happen. They can hurt. In addition to sudden pain, you may experience lingering soreness in the area, bruising, swelling, weakness, stiffness, spasms, limited movement of the area, and maybe even a 'knotted' feeling. If the strain is mild, you will likely just experience stiffness and soreness; however, if the strain is major, you may have more pain and more difficulty using the muscle before it heals.

Muscle Strain Treatment Options

Ice is the best treatment right after the injury. This will help control the amount of swelling and bruising that takes place. (As you probably know, ice should never be applied directly to the skin.) Over-the-counter pain relievers can also help alleviate some of the muscle pain. The pneumonic device PRICE is a useful guide for muscle strain treatment.

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