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Health > First Aid > Pulled muscles


A pulled muscle is an unavoidable hazard of life. But fortunately the inconvenience caused is usually minimal, treatment is simple and recovery rapid.

A pulled, strained or over-stretched muscle is the least severe of all the injuries that can occur to any part of the bodily structure. More severe types of injury include sprains, tears and the various fractures of the body’s muscles, ligaments, bones and joints.


A pulled muscle almost always results form an accident, the nature of which may vary considerably. For example, a person may drop their share of a load they are helping to carry, causing a sudden sharp movement or moment of acute tension on a muscle. Attempting to life something that is too heavy, or doing so awkwardly or incorrectly, can have similar results. A powerful movement that twists a part of the body into an unnatural position, as often happens in foot ball or boxing, may also stretch muscles beyond their natural limit.

In general this kind of strain is less likely to occur in children and young people, and in those who have trained themselves to make the necessary movements, or sustain the loads on the muscles involved. Nevertheless some movements are likely to result in a pulled muscle no matter who makes them. Certain occupations and activities - notably heavy manual work and strenuous athletics - therefore carry a fairly high frequency of muscular injury.


Pulled muscles can occur in virtually any part of the body. Stress from lifting is likely to be felt in the muscles of the lower back or abdomen. Sudden head movements ‘whiplash’ accidents where the head is jerked sharply backwards or forwards will give rise to pulled muscles in the neck. The shoulders, arms and hands are at risk in boxing and weight-lifting, while football, running and gymnastics place particular strain on the muscles of the hips, thighs, calves and feet.

The principal symptom is pain, and, if the ‘pull’ is severe, the muscle may also become weak and give way. It is usually the fibrous ‘meat’ of the muscle that is affected. The tendons which join the muscles to the bones can usually be damaged only by injuries severe enough to tear them from the bone.

The actual damage done can carry-the muscle fibers may simply be over-stretched or they may be torn. In severe cases pain in the muscle will be felt instantly and will be acute enough to stop the victim using it until it has had time to heal. In slight pulls the pain may not be felt until the next day and passes off quite quickly without much inconvenience or interruption of normal activities.


Distinguishing between a simple pulled muscle and more serious damage, such as an underlying fracture, is obviously vital but may be quite difficult. In all cases of musculo-skeletal injury there may be pain, tenderness and loss of use. Sometimes it will be clear that the injury is only a strain, or at the other extreme, a definite fracture. In intermediate cases extreme caution must be exercised until a medical opinion has been obtained, and perhaps an X-ray taken. Until this has been done it is best to err on the side of caution and treat the injury as though it is in fact a fracture. In this way any additional damage will be avoided.

Most pulled muscles can be treated by simple measures at home. A cold compress is helpful in reducing pain and limiting the amount of swelling and bruising that develop. Heat is also useful in increasing the blood supply to the damaged area, and in making it less painful and easier to move.

A pulled muscle should initially be rested, and then gradually used again as it recovers. A doctor should always be consulted if there is any doubt about the exact course to follow.

Home treatment for a pulled muscle

A cold compress should be applied immediately to the affected area.

Soak a bandage, handkerchief or piece of old linen in cold -not iced- water and wring it out.

Loosely bandage it over the injury and leave until it begins to dry or becomes warm.

Remove the dressing, re-soak it and repeat the procedure.

Apply heat treatment for 15 minutes every day until the muscle can be freely moved and no pain is felt.

If you do not have a heat lamp, use a hot water bottle or electric fire.

Put the fire securely on a table or chair ad sit with the affected part unclothed not less than 1 m (3ft) away-you should be able to feel the heat without your skin burning.


With care and common sense a pulled muscle should heal with no difficulty, and normal use be quickly restored.

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