How To Move Without Pain

Causes of Muscle Strains and What You Can Do

by Meghan Griech, PT, DPT, cert MDT, CKTP

This article takes 6 minutes to read

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A muscle strain occurs because muscle is overstretched or fatigued. Muscle strains could happen because of a repetitive activity, poor training or conditioning or random injury.

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Patient Example

Once I met a patient who was trying to get out of the ocean. As he was trying to get out of the breaking waves, the sand under his foot gave way and he strained his calf. He couldn’t believe how severe the pain felt, how limited he was for weeks and all he learned in physical therapy. 

Yet had he known that he strained a muscle and some key things to do about it, his recovery could have been shorter. 

Prior to meeting him, he was trying to walk through the pain (thus straining it further). He would  flare it up, then he would rest with his feet up, which caused the calf to be in a shortened position and become tighter, making each time he got up from his recliner that much more painful. 

Had he known he needed to gently stretch then gently use the muscle, then stretch again, he would have felt his recovery was going more positively from the beginning. Had he known the difference between stretching his injured muscle and straining, he would have understood if he was helping himself or harming himself.

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So what can set you up for a straining a muscle

  • not warming up properly before physical activity
  • poor flexibility
  • poor conditioning/training
  • Overexertion and fatigue
  • Repetitive movements
  • Not recognizing when your muscles need a rest
  • Strength imbalances

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Research shows muscle strains can occur from walking, not just high intense workouts.

Acute muscle strains are also more common in cold weather. This is because muscles are stiffer in lower temperatures.

This makes warming up especially important in winter and wearing proper clothing to maintain warmth when outside. 

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An acute strain can happen when you:

  • slip or lose your footing (ice, loose rocks, wet leaves)
  • poor posture or setup 
  • jumping
  • running
  • throw something
  • lift something heavy
  • lift something while in you’re in an awkward position
  • losing grip on an object you are carrying
  • holding tension in muscle when you need to be adaptive to surroundings (kayaking, skiing, ice skating or roller skating)

Chronic muscle strains are the result of repetitive movement. This can be due to:

  • sports like rowing, tennis, golf, or baseball
  • holding your back or neck in an prolonged and straining position for long periods of time, such as when you work at a desk or drive in the car
  • poor posture or setup
  • repeated movement in the same direction

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Muscle Strains: What you need to know

Most muscle strains can be successfully treated on your own.  Minor muscle strains can be treated with protection, rest, ice, compression, and elevation (PRICE). A minor muscle strain might feel sore and tight, but will still be flexible enough to move. 


Immediately after an injury, the initial goal is to protect the area from further injury.  This may be through limiting weight bearing or temporary use of a brace.  In minor injuries, this phase is usually very brief.


Initially avoid using the strained muscle for a few days, especially if movement causes an increase in pain. But this doesn’t mean completely no activity, too much rest can cause the tissues to stiffen and further inflexibility to the muscle.  After two days, slowly begin using the affected muscle group. Finding the timing between being able to complete comfortable gentle activities versus increasing pain is key. You want to be able to use the muscle but not inflame it. 


Apply ice immediately after injuring your muscle. Ice helps to minimize swelling. Repeat every hour on the first day or 2 depending on how sore the muscle is and how easily it hurts with attempts to use it. For the next several days, apply ice every four hours.

4 Quick Dos/Don’ts on Ice:

  1. Don’t put it directly on your skin, cover the ice pack with a towel or pillow case
  2. Don’t keep on your skin for longer than 20 minutes
  3. DO check your skin afterwards for any irritation
  4. DO avoid irritated skin the next time you ice your muscle


To reduce swelling, wrap the affected area with an elastic bandage until swelling comes down. Be sure to start the elastic bandage below the injury, wrapping up the leg,  arm or torso. Be careful not to wrap the area too tightly and always check your skin for irritation or trapped pockets of swelling when you remove the bandage. The bandage should feel compressive but not painful, remove and bandage again if it is painful


Whenever possible, keep the injured muscle raised above the level of your heart. This helps to mobilize swelling out of the affected area and back through the body to be removed. 


After three days the acute phase of the muscle strain should be subsiding. You’ll feel tightness in the muscle but less overall strain unless too much activity is completed. Apply heat to the muscle several times a day. This will help bring blood circulation to the area for healing. Then begin gentle stretching to the muscle, being sure not to cause pain just gentle pulling. 

Slowly increase your level of activity. Icing afterwards if the muscle is sore

Keep moving. Resting for too long can cause stiffness in the muscle and connective tissues and weakness may begin to occur.

When to see a Physical Therapist

If your muscle strain is severe, you may need medical attention. Talk to your Physical therapist about your injury and current symptoms if: 

  • You can’t make any attempt to contract the muscle
  • The pain doesn’t subside after a week.
  • The injured area is numb.
  • You feel extremely limited to tolerating any activity
  • You can’t walk.
  • You can’t move your arms or legs.

Muscle strains can occur from an injury, overused muscles, or prolonged postures that cause the muscle to fatigue.

Initial steps can be made at home to recover on your own, but when muscle restriction, pain, or inflexibility continues seek help from your local physical therapist to make sure your muscle recovers completely and risk of re-injury is minimized. 

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*Disclaimer: All information in this article is intended for instruction and informational purposes. The author(s) are not responsible for any harm or injury that may result.  This info is used to supplement not replace any advice you were provided from your doctor or another medical health professional.  No guarantees of specific results are expressly made or implied with this article.