What is a strain?

A strain is an injury to a muscle, tendon, or a connected group of muscles and tendons. Strains are sometimes confused with sprains because they have similar symptoms. However, sprains are a different type of injury. While strains affect muscles and tendons, sprains affect ligaments. Ligaments are the bands of tissue that connect bones at the joints.

Injury Spotlight

To understand strains, it helps to understand your body’s muscles. There are three types of muscles in your body:

  • Involuntary cardiac muscle, or myocardium, is your heart muscle.

  • Involuntary smooth muscles are the muscles of organs, such as your stomach and intestines.

  • Voluntary skeletal muscles are muscles attached to bone.

Voluntary skeletal muscles are the type of muscle that can be strained. They help support your body’s skeletal structure and work together with tendons to enable movement. Tendons are strong cords of soft connective tissue that attach bones to muscles.

Muscles in the neck, back and legs are most susceptible to strain. However, other muscle areas can be strained, including those in the groin, feet, ankles, arms and hands. A strain can also be called a muscle strain or pulled muscle. Strains can range in severity from a mild stretch or pull to a complete tear and rupture of the muscle or tendon. Symptoms of a strain are muscle weakness, pain, spasms, swelling, cramping, or loss of muscle function.

Strains can be chronic (developing slowly over time) or acute (occurring suddenly). Chronic strains are the result of repetitive overuse of muscles. Acute strains are the result of immediate muscle overload. Typical activities that cause strains include sports and other exercise activities; accidents, such as falling or slipping; heavy lifting and other strenuous activities; and repetitive use of muscles, such as shoveling snow during the course of winter.

Rest, ice, compression, elevation, and nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) help relieve the aches and pain associated with mild muscle strains. Often, this may be the only treatment needed for mild strains. Moderate to severe strains may require more extensive treatment, such as surgery, immobilization, and physical therapy.

In some cases, muscle strains can be serious. Seek immediate medical care (call 911) if you, or someone you are with, have serious symptoms of a severe muscle strain, rupture or tear. These symptoms may include hearing a popping sound when you are injured; severe, disabling pain or swelling; and inability to use the muscle, such as an inability to walk.


What are the symptoms of a strain?

The symptoms of a strain can range from mild to severe, depending on the type and extent of the strain. Chronic strains are the result of prolonged, repetitive overuse of muscles. The symptoms of a chronic strain are often overlooked because they develop over time. Acute strains are the result of immediate muscle overload from overstretching, excessive muscle contraction without adequate breaks, and trauma. Acute strains tend to have more severe and noticeable symptoms than chronic strains. However, both types of strain can cause these similar symptoms:... Read more about strainsymptoms


What causes a strain?

A strain occurs when a muscle or tendon is pulled, stretched, twisted or torn. There are two different types of strain, chronic and acute. Chronic and acute strains have different causes.... Read more about straincauses

Medical Reviewer: McDonough, Brian, MD Last Annual Review Date: Jul 25, 2011 Copyright: © Copyright 2011 Health Grades, Inc. All rights reserved. May not be reproduced or reprinted without permission from Health Grades, Inc. Use of this information is governed by the HealthGrades User Agreement.

This Article is Filed Under: Bones, Joints and Muscles

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