Muscle strains: Prevention is better than cure

Muscle strains are relatively common among athletes. In many cases, overtraining and a lack of warm-up are to blame


David Schaad, MSc Physiotherapy, Head of Therapy Medbase Bischofszell and Medbase Amriswil Center.


How does a muscle strain manifest?

A muscle strain manifests through various symptoms, which can vary depending on the severity of the strain. These symptoms gradually appear and worsen over time. The muscle feels tense, but shaking or massaging does not provide relief.

How to distinguish a strain from a muscle tear?

In a muscle tear, the muscle fibers are torn, whereas in a strain, they are merely stretched too far. Pain from a muscle tear typically occurs suddenly.

A strain and a muscle tear are both common muscle injuries, particularly among athletes, but there are differences between them that play a role in diagnosis and treatment. With a strain, the pain is usually moderate and subsides after a few days of rest.

In contrast, the pain from a muscle tear is more intense, occurs immediately after the injury, and lasts longer, often significantly impairing the muscle’s function and strength. Strains often cause mild swelling without bruising, while muscle tears can lead to significant swelling and bruising, as they also affect the blood vessels in the muscle. Usually, a strain allows for some movement, while a tear makes lifting weights or similar activities difficult or impossible.

What causes muscle strains?

Muscle strains in runners can be caused by several factors, including overtraining, inadequate warm-up, and poor running technique. Running on terrain with significant irregularities that one is not accustomed to can pose an additional risk, often under fatigue.

How to handle a muscle strain?

In general, for acute cases and the first two days, the PECH rule has been established (Pause-Eis-Compression-Hochlagern):

  • P for Rest: Pain is a warning signal. The activity causing pain should be stopped. Rest yourself and your muscles for the next period.
  • E for Ice: Apply ice to the affected area, but do not place the ice pack directly on the skin.
  • C for Compression: Wherever possible, apply a compressive bandage or wrap. A compression bandage should be firm but not too tight. The bandaged body part should not tingle or feel numb and should not be significantly thinner than the part before or after.
  • H for Elevation: Elevating the affected limb (higher than the heart) reduces swelling and thus pain.

How to treat a strain after the acute phase?

After a rest period of two to three days, light, pain-free loads are important to promote the reduction of swelling and prevent the muscle from weakening. Avoiding movement of the injured body part for weeks can be counterproductive. Massages, electrotherapy, lymphatic drainage, and taping can support further healing.

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How to prevent muscle strains?

To prevent muscle strains while running, it is crucial for runners to always perform a thorough warm-up to prepare the muscles for the upcoming stress. Regular stretching improves flexibility and can help prevent injuries. It is also important for runners to listen to their body’s signals and avoid overtraining by scheduling adequate recovery periods and gradually increasing their training intensity and distance. Good running technique also plays an essential role in avoiding unnecessary strain on the muscles.

Muscle soreness is a very mild muscle strain

Muscle soreness is a harmless but annoying pain in the muscles. In sports medicine, muscle soreness is referred to as a Type I strain. This involves small tears in the muscle fibers. The pain usually sets in after 12 to 24 hours and is strongest after about 48 hours. Researchers believe that the initial trauma triggers a wave of inflammation, which subsequently leads to noticeable pain.

When should you see a doctor for a muscle strain?

Athletes should see a doctor if the symptoms of a muscle strain are severe or do not improve with standard treatments such as rest, icing, and gentle stretching. Even if symptoms persist or worsen, a visit to a physician is advisable. The doctor can then suggest tailored treatment that allows for faster and safer recovery.



Medbase is the largest multidisciplinary sports medicine network in Switzerland, offering specialized sports medicine services for athletes, clubs, and sports associations of all activity levels in the areas of sports medicine, sports physiotherapy, performance diagnostics, and training advice.

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