Primary Care

Muscle Injury: Symptoms, Treatment, When to See a Doctor

Kevin Stephens, MDby Kevin Stephens, MD
Muscle Injury: Symptoms, Treatment, When to See a Doctor

Muscle Injury: Symptoms, Treatment, When to See a Doctor

If you are having persistent pain in your muscles that lasts longer than post workout soreness, you may have a muscle injury. These are important to be evaluated by a doctor because continued activity or workouts can aggravate the issue and prolong recovery. 

How Do You Know if You Have Injured a Muscle?

Watch out for the following signs of muscle injury:

  • Muscle tenderness

  • Stiffness/limited movement

  • Redness

  • Swelling

  • Bruising

  • Weakness

  • Muscle spasm

Types of Muscle Injuries

Muscle Strains

Muscle strains consist of injuries directly to the muscle. They are graded from Grade 1 to 3, or from mild to severe. Grade 1 strains are early tears or overstretched fibers; Grade 2 strains are incomplete tears, and Grade 3 strains are tears all the way through the muscle.


Sprains refer to injuries of the ligaments or tendons that are the muscles’ attachment to bones, or hold two bones together. Like strains, sprains can be mild, moderate, or severe based on the amount of injury. These commonly occur when joints are rolled or hyperextended past their normal range of motion, like ankles or knees.


This is a more rare type of muscle injury that can result from prolonged and strenuous workouts or from heatstroke. With rhabdomyolysis, the muscle cells themselves breakdown and release a chemical called myoglobin into the bloodstream. Myoglobin causes kidney injury and can make the urine tea-colored. In addition, this causes severe muscle aches and weakness.

What to Do While Recovering From a Muscle Injury

Here are some things you can do to hasten your healing process:

1. Rest

Letting the muscle or tendon stay in a relaxed state is essential to healing. This doesn’t necessarily mean you cannot exercise, but if your activity is causing pain, it is likely re-aggravating your injury.

2. NSAIDs (anti-inflammatory medicines)

Medicines like Advil or Aleve act not just to relieve pain, but to decrease inflammation around the injured area. However, for more severe injuries that may cause longer periods of pain, please consult your doctor before taking these medications for a prolonged time. They can cause gastric injuries especially when taken on an empty stomach.

3. Compression stockings or immobilizers

Ask your doctor if either of these will be helpful for your recovery. They can help manage both pain and swelling, especially for knee and ankle injuries.

4. Ice, then heat

Ice right after an injury can help decrease inflammation and swelling. However, after a few days, heat may be superior to ice by increasing blood flow to the area so that healing can begin. Make sure not to leave either ice or hot packs applied to your skin for too long at a time.

5. Elevation

If possible, elevate the injured area above your heart when you are lying down. For example, prop a sprained ankle on a few pillows at night. Gravity will help drain the swelling overnight.

Prevention of Muscle Injuries

Here are some tips to keep muscle injuries at bay:

  • Stretching both before and after strenuous exercise, including proper warm up and cool downs

  • Avoid lifting heavy objects with your back

  • Proper footwear, especially if you have flat feet

  • Staying hydrated during your workout

When Should You See a Doctor?

The following symptoms mean you should seek medical attention:

  1. A popping sound at your joint

  2. Weakness of the affected muscle or inability to stand up

  3. A visible deformity of the bones or joints

  4. Severe pain 

  5. Numbness

  6. Dark urine


How long do muscle injuries take to heal?

After a muscle injury, the recovery period will depend on whether the injury is mild, moderate, or severe. Mild injuries can take a week, while severe ones will typically require months of rest or even surgical repair. 

Can a torn muscle heal itself?

Yes, depending on how severe the injury is. Tears resulting from accidents and falls are intense and may require surgery. Your health provider can evaluate the torn muscle and make treatment recommendations.

Ligaments and tendons have relatively poor blood supply and are more difficult to heal on their own. This is why ACL and UCL tears in athletes often require surgical repair.

What is a "pulled" muscle?

A "pulled" muscle is another generic word for a muscle strain or tendon sprain. The injury usually occurs in the hamstring or lower back when trying to lift a heavy object or engage in sudden strenuous movement. Treatment is the same as for other strains or sprains.

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