What Is It?
A muscle strain is a stretch or tear of muscle fibers. In the leg, muscle strains happen when a muscle is either stretched beyond its limits or forced into extreme contraction. Because the leg has many different muscles, it is vulnerable to several different types of muscle strains. Some of the more common ones are:
To help simplify diagnosis and treatment, doctors often classify muscle strains into three different grades, depending on the severity of muscle fiber damage.
Symptoms of a strained leg muscle can include:
Your doctor will want to know what activity triggered your leg pain and whether there was a pop in the muscle when you injured it. The doctor also will ask about your symptoms, especially any decreased muscle strength or difficulty walking.
To confirm a diagnosis, the doctor will examine you. If the results of your exam point to Grade I or II muscle strain, you probably will not need any additional testing. However, if the diagnosis is in doubt, X-rays or a magnetic resonance imaging scan may be necessary. Also, in calf muscle injuries, Doppler studies may be done to check for a blood clot.
Most Grade I or Grade II strains begin to feel better within a few days. In most cases, symptoms are either totally gone, or very much improved, within 8 to 10 weeks. Symptoms of a Grade III strain may last until the torn muscle is repaired surgically.
To help prevent muscle strains in your legs, you can:
If you have a Grade I or Grade II strain, your doctor will probably recommend that you follow the RICE rule:
In addition, you can take a nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drug (NSAID), such as ibuprofen (Advil, Motrin and other brand names) or aspirin, to ease pain and relieve swelling. As pain gradually subsides, your doctor may recommend a rehabilitation program to restore the normal range of motion in your leg and to gradually strengthen the injured muscle.
If you have a Grade II strain, you may need to be evaluated by a specialist, such as an orthopedist. To allow the injured muscle to heal, you may need to wear a cast for a number of weeks.
If you have a Grade III strain in your leg, the torn muscle may need to be repaired surgically by an orthopedic specialist. One exception is a Grade III plantaris strain, which usually is treated without surgery.
When to Call a Professional
Call your doctor promptly if:
The outlook depends on the location and severity of the muscle strain. In general, almost all Grade I strains heal within a few weeks. Grade II strains may take two to three months. After surgery to repair a Grade III strain, most people regain normal leg muscle function after several months of rehabilitation.
National Institute of Arthritis and Musculoskeletal and Skin Diseases
National Institutes of Health
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National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health
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National Rehabilitation Information Center (NARIC)
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American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons (AAOS)
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National Athletic Trainers' Association
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American Physical Therapy Association
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