Injuries are the worst enemy for those who are into any kind of physical activity. When you get injured, you realize that you’re not as invincible as you thought you were. Fortunately, your body is a wonderful machine that only needs proper care to restore the original fitness level. Among the most common injuries we observe are muscle strains (pulled muscles). Here, I want to share with you simple and highly effective muscle strain recovery tips that I have used successfully on myself as well as on many other sports lovers I helped throughout the years.
Sports doctors love it cold. What a mistake.
During my long and quite varied sports career that included soccer, basketball, track and field, ultra-marathons, and ultimate frisbee in two different continents, I had to deal with injuries once in a while, including muscle strains. This brought me to discuss with doctors and physiotherapists the best treatments available that would ensure quick and proper recovery. Well, throughout all these years not even once did I receive the recommendation to apply heat on the affected area.I unwillingly kept apllying ice multiple times a day with little results, whereas whenever I received treatments like laser therapy, tecar therapy, etc. I always had almost instantaneous relief and speedy recovery. What do all these therapies have in common? The answer is heat.
What I’m going to briefly show you is that heat is the most misunderstood, yet most effective treatment for muscle strain. Just like most of the topics discussed on Wise In Motion, I firmly believe that understanding the problem allows you to be more in control of the tools you need to employ to solve it. Let’s delve into it then.
Muscle strain 101
Let’s answer this seemingly unrelated question: why do you store food in the refrigerator? One of the possible answers is to slow down spoilage. Spoilage is usually caused, among other things, by proteins called enzymes (present either in the food itself or in bacteria happening to be in the food), which act as nanoscopic machines that at room temperature are very good at converting nutritious and fragrant molecules into stinky and potentially harmful ones. Upon storing food at lower temperatures you significantly slow down enzymatic activity and in turn, food spoilage.
Now, going back to muscle strains, it’s important to understand that this type of injury involves the overstretching or tearing of muscle fibers, capillaries and other anatomical structures. The healing process that leads to eventually fixing the damage relies on a mind-blowingly complex series of biochemical reactions where enzymes, other proteins and nutrients come together harmoniously, creating new healthy tissue. The only thing that you need to keep in mind right now is that in order for all this to actually happen, you have to provide these little machines with the right environment, that is first of all, the right temperature. Let’s see why.
The healing process
Applying ice right after muscle strain occurs is certainly beneficial as it temporarily relieves pain and prevents blood from further spreading to surrounding areas by decreasing blood flow.
After this time, the first step that needs to take place is blood clotting: muscle strains always underlie the rupture of blood vessels to a certain extend (for very minor muscle strain, the damage is microscopic, whereas for major muscle strains you even might observe evident bruises around the affected area). Just like when you cut yourself more or less seriously, the quicker the clotting process the better, as this leads to shorter recovery time, better healing and lower risk of infection. Interestingly, many scientific and peer-reviewed studies [1,2], already decades ago, have shown that blood clotting rate drastically decreases as the temperature decreases. Therefore, continuing to apply ice during the two days after injury is both pointless and counterproductive, as it prevents clotting to take place rapidly and efficiently.
Following this initial phase, after 1-3 days (depending on the gravity of the injury) muscle fiber regeneration begins. Here too, enzymes and other biochemical entities play a crucial role. Similar to the enzymes in food that are almost completely halted by low temperatures, these nanoscopic builders simply can’t function properly when the temperature drops too far below body temperature. Imagine an assembly line and you’ll understand that it takes just one workstation, that is enzyme, to interfere with the whole line and cause disruption of the (re)building process. In the case of muscle strain, this translates into longer recovery time and even worse, improper recovery. By applying cold in the injured area you simply work against your own organism that is desperately trying to fix the damaged tissues.
How uncomfortable is it to apply ice on certain areas? You literally have to force yourself to do it while your brain is telling you to spare it from that kind of torture. This is not just a coincidence. It’s as if your brain knew what’s best for the organism that it’s constantly keeping under control. In this case, your brain is right.
Compared to cold treatment, heat has the opposite effect on the healing process (as long as it’s not too hot, of course). It has been shown by several scientific studies [1,2] that both blood clotting and muscle fiber regeneration occur much more rapidly when the temperature in the injured area is higher than body temperature, up to about 50°C (122 F). On top of this, heat causes vasodilation (higher blood flow) which further facilitates recovery thanks to a larger amount of nutrients and growth factors reaching the injured area. As if it wasn’t enough, psychologically speaking, heat has a soothing and relaxing effect whose importance can’t be ignored at all.
What else can speed up muscle strain recovery?
Just like any injury, muscle strains are also characterized by inflammation. Inflammation is a completely physiological response that the organism initiates for the recruitment of adequate biochemical support needed to contrast the damage caused by the injury itself. One aspect of inflammation that causes confusion in the medical community is that the inflammation response has the purpose to re-establish the original dynamic equilibrium (also called homeostasis). This happens through the intervention of compounds that are either anti-inflammatory or pro-inflammatory, namely they either contrast inflammation or favor it. In the case of muscle strain, prolonged inflammation due to ice therapy or continual stresses of the torn muscle fibers, can lead to slower recovery time and also improper tissue regeneration (scarring).
In order to move the equilibrium towards anti-inflammatory compounds, you can aid your organism with natural compounds that help lower the level of pro-inflammatory molecules, thereby speeding up the resolution of inflammation. To my knowledge, one of the most effective is certainly curcumin, that is the main active ingredient of turmeric. Several scientific in-vivo studies have shown that it does exactly what I just described: it inhibits the production of inflammation-inducing compounds, therefore favoring the action of anti-inflammatory ones. Many runners and athletes I assisted have experienced how incredibly beneficial the administration of 1 g of turmeric a day can be and how big of a difference it makes in terms of recovery time. Find out more here.
Muscle strain recovery tips
1) Apply ice right after the muscle strain for not more than 2 hours, 20 min at the time with 20 min break.
2) Don’t do any activity that may cause pain in the injured area.
3) Apply heat for 30-45 min at the time, at least three times a day. Keep applying heat for as many days as needed to reach complete recovery. Electric heating pads are the best. Check them out here.
4) Don’t keep the heat source on the injured area overnight.
5) Take turmeric every day, once or twice a day: learn more about turmeric here.
6) Don’t take pain killers. I know, this might sound strange but unless pain is unbearable, avoid them as much as possible since the temporary reduction of pain perception might prompt you to involuntarily make movements that will cause further damage to the injured area. Don’t underestimate this tip.
6) Start doing some light stretching only when the pain upon pressing or tensing the injured muscles is minimal
7) Start exercising slowly and only after you reach full recovery: you can do an ultrasound to confirm.
8) Try to understand why you strained your muscles and how you can prevent it from happening again.
To me the most interesting thing about these tips is that they apply to so many other injuries whose underlying cause is inflammation. Take, for example, plantar fasciitis, knee pain, back pain, etc. My hope is that heat therapy, which is inexpensive, with no evident side-effects, and extremely effective will receive the level of attention that it deserves in the medical community.
Live wise. Live in Motion.
PS please share your thoughts with me