Injured Muscles – To Move or Not To Move

July 1, 2014 in STSMPT

It’s probably happened to you in the past, and it’s likely to happen to you in the future – muscle injury.  How you handle the next muscle injury you see affects how quickly the muscle regains strength and movement, and it may even affect how well the muscle will function for the rest of your life.   The tricky part is that resting the muscle helps at first and harms the muscle just days later.

Whether you pull a muscle so hard that it partially tears or a blunt force strikes your muscle so hard that the muscle is injured, skeletal muscles tend to heal in consistent patterns.  So we can provide some general advice about when and how to use movement during muscle healing.  First understand that we are discussing skeletal muscles.   This means the muscles that attach to the skeleton and provide movement (e.g. hamstrings, biceps, gastrocnemius).  This discussion does not apply to other types of muscles.

Immediately after a muscle is injured, athletes typically want to apply P.R.I.C.E.

P – Protect the injured muscle by restricting movement and avoiding pressure on it

R – Rest the injured muscle and avoid activity that can further damage it

I – Ice the injured area to reduce swelling.

C – Compress the muscle (i.e. elastic bandage)

E – Elevate the muscle above the level of your heart to improve circulatory drainage in the injured area

Protecting and resting an injured muscle for the correct amount of time helps because it gives new healing tissues a chance to develop strength.  Immediately after an injury, even slight use of injured muscles can result in larger scars on and in the muscle.  Methods as simple as athletic tape are often sufficient for protecting an injured muscle.

Here’s the rub.  If you protect and/or rest a muscle a few days too long, you start causing a number of problems.  In the best circumstances, movement should be applied to injured muscles as early as three to five days post injury.  However, it is very important to note that 3-5 days is not a hard and fast rule.  People can do a number of things that change the timing of muscle healing.  Getting in a hot tub can cause problems that delay the healing process or unwittingly re-injuring the muscle can change the timeline.  What you should be doing about your muscle injury depends entirely on what your body is doing at the time.  If you have a serious muscle injury or are concerned about making a muscle injury worse, consult a health care professional.

Timely mobilization of injured muscles has been shown to

  • improve the tensile strength of injured muscles
  • facilitate faster strength recovery
  • limit the size of the permanent scar on the muscle
  • encourage more rapid and intensive capillary growth into the injured area
  • facilitate the proper alignment of muscle fibers

When a skeletal muscle is injured, your body rushes in with “workers” that lay down repair tissue.  We must keep in mind that the “workers” do not have a blue print for how the repair tissue should be applied.  Like the fabric in an elastic cuff on your coat, the repair tissue should have a pattern.  When an injured muscle is in motion, the motion actually guides the patterns of the new repair tissue.  When an injured muscle rests too long, the repair tissue lays down in counterproductive patterns that can interfere with movement long term.

When it is time for mobilization, physical therapy treatment may involve careful passive stretching, isometric strengthening, and thermal modalities.  If you have a serious muscle injury or if you simply desire the fastest, safest return to normal activity, call us to discuss whether a physical therapy assessment may be useful.


Muscle Injury Movement

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