Treating a Pulled Muscle: Heat Versus Ice

By | January 22, 2017

A golfer feels a sharp pain in his back as he swings his club, a runner can’t make it off the starting block because of a burning sensation in her shin. These are each examples of when someone may be experiencing a pulled muscle.


What Does It Mean To Pull a Muscle?

A pulled muscle is a somewhat generic term. It is sometimes used interchangeably with a sprained or a strained muscle. This typically refers to any instance when strain is placed on the muscles, the attaching tendons, or both, which causes damage and pain.

When a muscle is pulled, the individual might feel consistent pain in the area, or only feel the pain when that part of the body is moved or is attempting to hold weight. Especially if blood vessels in the area were damaged, there may be swelling, redness, and/or bruising.

Treating a Pulled Muscle at Home

It is typically not necessary to go a doctor after pulling or straining muscle. In most cases, these problems can be addressed at home. If you have never experienced this type of pain before, you might not know how to begin addressing your injury.

If there skin is broken in any areas, you will want to clean these wounds and bandage them, as long as they are not cuts that are deep enough to warrant needing professional attention. Next, you will want to keep the injured appendage elevated, if possible.

When you turn to the Internet or any other guides for help during this time, you will find the above advice to be fairly standard. Where the guidance differs is over the matter of applying heat or cold to the pulled or strained muscle. This is when providing your own home care can become confusing. Should you find an icepack or a heating pad?

Beginning Your Recovery Using Ice

Immediately following your injury, it is best to cool the area down using an ice pack. The ice helps to stop any bleeding that might be occurring within the tissues, and also reduces inflammation and swelling in the area.

They body’s initial defensive reaction to injury is inflammation. As the ice brings this swelling down, a lot of the pain and discomfort will typically dissipate as well.

When icing a pulled muscle, you will not want to apply too much pressure or ice to the injured area. Michael Neely, a Doctor of Osteopathic Medicine, suggests that leaving the ice on the area too long can, “result in tissue damage – including frostbite!” To avoid this problem, it is best to only apply the ice, with a towel or other thick cloth placed between the ice and the skin, for ten to fifteen minutes at a time at most. You can repeat the application every few hours over the next two days, depending upon the amount of swelling and discomfort you are feeling.

When Applying Heat Would Be Appropriate

Heat is generally applied to long-term injuries, like those that cause chronic pain. The warmth can cause stiff muscles to relax and loosen. If muscles remain sore, stiff, or have persistent cramps, applying heat can potentially provide relief.

If you do pull a muscle, even if you do feel cramps or stiffness in the area very soon after the injury, it is best to avoid applying heat. As the cold causes blood vessels to constrict and stops the bleeding, applying heat can cause blood vessels to widen and for bleeding to become worse. This can lead to increased inflammation, irritation, blood loss, and pain in the area of your strained muscle.

In the immediate days after you initially pull a muscle, it is best to stick with the ice, giving all of the inflammation an opportunity to subside. After this healing process is over, if you feel stiff and sore from the recovery process, you might consider adding some heat to relax your muscles and restore your mobility.

Keeping Your Skin Safe When Icing or Heating

It is important to go about icing and heating your injuries very carefully. As mentioned earlier, applying ice for too long, or applying it directly to the skin, can cause more harm than good.

When using either of these treatment methods, heat or cold, it is best to have some type of soft, cloth material separating the ice or heating pad from the skin. This is especially important if you have sensitive and/or broken skin. You do not want extreme temperatures to cause further injury.

Should You See a Doctor When You’ve Pulled a Muscle?

After suffering a serious injury that is causing you significant amounts of pain, you may be understandably scared and you might think it best that you see a physician right away. This is a perfectly acceptable decision to make, as it is always best to err on the side of caution. You should simply know that a pulled muscle is often not a problem that warrants urgent medical attention.

Signs that you should go immediately to receive urgent care include:

  • If you hear a popping sound at the time of the strain
  • There are open cuts that will likely require stitches
  • You are unable to walk or use a strained arm
  • There is severe swelling and pain

If you decide to treat your injury at home using ice – and possibly heat a few days later – there is still a chance that you will need to have your injury examined by a physician eventually.

A pulled muscle should respond to your at home treatment methods within the first two to three days. If, after this time, the pain persists, there may be underlying medical conditions or damage that requires professional medical attention. If you develop a fever or any other additional symptoms during your initial recovery, these are also signs that you need to visit a doctor.

In most cases, you will recover just fine with the help of a bit of rest, but you can never be too cautious when it comes to your health and well being.

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