Having sore muscles is a daily struggle for anyone who exercises but what about when you have a full-on muscle injury? The difference between soreness and a serious injury can be hard to tell at first which is why it’s so important to pay attention to how your body is responding during and after your latest gym session.
Your muscles repair themselves all the time because every time you work out you traumatize your muscles creating microscopic tears in the tissue. It sounds scary, but it’s actually the healing of those tiny tears that make your muscles grow in size and strength. Overtraining will almost certainly lead to injury. It’s simple overuse math. Traumatize your muscles too much, and those microtears will compound into an injury that will set you back in your training, like a pulled hamstring or a tweaked back.
Most muscle strains happen for one of two reasons: either the muscle has been stretched beyond its limits or it has been forced to contract too strongly. In mild cases, only a few muscle fibers are stretched or torn, and the muscle remains intact and strong. In severe cases, however, the strained muscle may be torn and unable to function properly.
Healing Timeline for Muscle Injuries
The Deconstruction Phase – 1 to 7 Days Post Injury
Muscle tissue has a mechanism referred to as a “fire door” that seals the injured area to make sure the destruction and subsequent repair phases only occur at the injured site. This process occurs throughout the first few days after injury.
During this phase, inflammation can begin to set in. Inflammation is the body’s natural response to a soft tissue injury and is a normal part of the healing process – helping to reduce tissue infection in the early stages of injury. Swelling, pain, heat sensation, redness, and loss of function are the main symptoms experienced and it is your body’s way of telling you there is something wrong.
The Repair Phase – 1 to 3 Weeks Post Injury
This phase is the buffer between the immediate onset swelling of an injury and the healing of an injury, so needless to say it may be the most important one to get right. During this phase, a cell called a macrophage is introduced into the injured site. A macrophage “eats” and “cleans away” the dead tissue and dry blood caused by the injury. Once this is complete, another cell – called a satellite cell – is released into the injured area. Satellite cells transform into myoblast cells, which group together to create new muscle fibers. Another cell, called a fibroblast, also produces connective tissue at the injured site. It is a combination of connective tissue and muscle fibers that repair the injured muscle. In addition, new blood vessels and nerves are generated during this phase. This repair phase commonly is peaking about two weeks after injury.
The Remodeling Phase – 1 to 2 Months Post Injury
During remodeling, the regenerating muscle fibers and connective tissue continue to mature and are being oriented into the final scar tissue. This stage is important for the manner in which the scar tissue is being oriented. Typically, muscle issue is oriented in straight lines. When the tissue repairs itself, the mixture of new muscle fibers and connective tissue are randomly oriented. Treatment during this phase can assist the new tissue to regenerate into parallel lines, like a pile of logs, instead of one big clump, like a ball of yarn.
When your body detects that a repaired structure is still weaker than necessary, it will automatically stimulate additional new tissue to help strengthen and support the healing tissue until it meets the demands of your normal exercise or physical function. That’s why it’s important to slowly return to your regular fitness level. This allows your body to stimulate the injured area as you get stronger as well.
Best Ways To Treat A Muscle Injury
Icing For Inflammation Reduction
Best for: Injuries involving inflammation and swelling
Ice can be a major component of injury treatment. By constricting blood vessels after application, ice is an effective way to reduce and even prevent inflammation immediately following an injury. Cold therapy can also leave the joint more mobile and enhance manual therapy. Although it’s difficult to nail down the most effective protocol, applying cold packs to inflamed areas has been shown to significantly reduce swelling in soft tissue injuries.
Putting On Heat For Soothing Pain
Best for: Injuries involving muscular spasms and tightness
Applying heat has been shown to decrease pain and increase mobility after some injuries – mainly those involving soft tissue like muscles, tendons, and ligaments. By making the tissue more pliable, the therapist can better stretch the affected area. Note: Heat is just one tool to help the therapist be more effective, Dr. Reinold says, it shouldn’t be the main focus of a treatment plan.
Taping An Injury For Extra Support
Best for: Encouraging healing and improving recovery time
During injury blood and other fluids build up causing inflammation and swelling. If there’s too much inflammation, the excess is unable to be removed by the lymphatic system. In short, the lymphatic vessels become compressed which prevents oxygen and nutrients from being delivered to healing tissues. When KT tape is properly applied, the elasticity in the KT tape gently lifts the skin from the tissues below. This gentle lifting of the skin creates a space to improve blood and lymphatic flow which ultimately helps to alleviate pressure and reduce swelling. Once blood flow is restored, oxygen and nutrients are better able to reach damaged tissues to help enhance healing.
Exercise Therapy For Long Term Treatment
Best for: Long term treatment and prevention
It may sound obvious, but exercise is a go-to strategy to treat and prevent pain. But these aren’t just any old run of the mill exercises – they’re hand-picked to help patients move better by strengthening targeted muscles and addressing any muscular imbalances that may exist, Dr. Babenko says. Also, keep in mind that many injuries can crop up (or recur) from a sedentary and repetitive lifestyle, Dr. Reinold explains. (Think: hunching over the computer or obsessing over that Instagram feed.) By performing any sort of regular exercise, those with even the most sedentary day-to-day can avoid common nagging aches and pains.
Path to Recovery With A Muscle Injury
Recovery time depends on the severity of the injury. For a mild strain, you may be able to return to normal activities within three to six weeks with basic home care. For more severe strains, recovery can take several months. In critical cases, surgical repair and physical therapy may be necessary.
With proper treatment, most people recover completely. You can improve your chances of recovery by taking steps to avoid getting the same injury again. Follow your doctor’s instructions, and don’t engage in strenuous physical activity until your muscles have healed!