Strains are one of the most common types of injuries people sustain. There are various degrees of strains, and they can affect more or less any part of our body. Different actions cause different parts of our bodies to strain, and result in different consequences too. This blog will give a broad overview of what strains are, what causes them, their implications, and how to prevent and heal them.
What is a Strain?
A strain is the stretching or tearing of muscles and tendons in our bodies. Tendons are the fibrous tissue that connects our muscles to our bones, and it is worth noting that they should not be confused with ligaments, which are the fibrous tissue that connects two bones together. Sprains are similar to but distinct from strains, and refer to the stretching or tearing of ligaments. They are less common than strains, generally affecting the ligaments in our joints.
What Causes Strains?
When discussing strains, it is important to distinguish between acute and chronic strains. An acute strain is one that happens suddenly and unexpectedly. Examples include falling in such a way that your muscles or tendons are suddenly pulled to such a degree that they are overstretched or torn entirely. The sensation of acute strains is generally a hot, sharp pain in the affected area.
Chronic strains are those that manifest slowly over time. These are usually a type of overuse injury, and occur as a result of repetitive and rigid movement. Chronic strains are very common in almost all forms of sport which involve such movements. For example, runners and joggers often experience calf strains, as the repetitive expansion and retraction tears the small fibres in the calf muscles over time. The sensation of chronic strains is a dull ache that slowly worsens over time.
From a medical point of view, there are no majorly worrisome implications of most strains. While it would of course be better not to hurt yourself at all, the majority of strains can be dealt with at home and will disappear in under two months. The greatest implication is really that it will generally take you out of action from your preferred sports or activities during this time.
Acute strains can be worse than chronic pains in some cases, particularly if you are not a very athletic person. This means that your muscles and tendons may be tighter and shorter than someone who is athletic, meaning the threshold you can withstand for a sudden and unexpected stretch is much lower. While most strains will go away with time, you should see a doctor if an acute strain is extremely painful. This may indicate that the muscle or tendon has torn, and failure to treat it could result in improper healing.
Prevention and Treatment
While the only real way to prevent an acute strain is to be careful when engaging in physical activity, chronic strains can be more easily prevented as they occur gradually over time. There are two main ways to prevent such strains, and practising them will also help build up your resistance to acute strains also.
The first is to make sure you both warm-up before exercising, and warm-down afterwards. The power of warming down in particular should not be underestimated, and is something that many people do not take into consideration. The second way to prevent strains is to ensure that, no matter what physical activity or activities you engage in, you shake it up a little. If you’re a swimmer, use the whole range of strokes. You may be focused on perfecting one style or increasing your endurance, but ultimately, this will result in an overuse injury, which will take you out of action, and inhibit your performance far more than trying different strokes. If you’re a runner, try different types of terrains, inclines, speeds, and so on. A major problem with runners is that they often run the same route over and over, which will also result in an overuse injury such as a strain.
If you have sustained a mild-to-moderate strain, the best way to treat it is with the R.I.C.E. technique. This stands for Rest, Ice, Compression, and Elevation. Get plenty of rest, use an ice pack every few hours (note: never ever apply ice directly to your skin. Use a tea towel if necessary), compress the affected area with a bandage (remove if the area becomes numb or continues swelling), and elevate the injury above your heart. This means gravity will encourage circulation, which will speed up healing. Using this technique, most strains will disappear within 4 to 6 weeks.