No pain, no gain
All muscles consist of multiple fibers of varying lengths and thicknesses. Muscles also help with applying resistance for lifting heavy objects or applying forces when running, jumping, or squatting. Tears form in small muscle fibers and the surrounding connective tissue during these activities. This is a normal and essential process as the tears grow into bigger, stronger muscles. In other words, performing physical activities lead to micro-tears in the muscles. Pain and soreness are the inflammation between the injury and the repair process.
When tears are serious
Muscle tears happen at various degrees. Minor tears from everyday activities typically cause pain for 24-72 hours. More severe injuries or tears are graded 1-3 and can vary in pain intensity. Grade 1 tears involve about 10% of the fibers in the muscle. Grade 2 tears comprise up to 90% of damaged fibers, while grade 3 are complete ruptures. Muscle tears and subsequent pain are more common at the end of the muscle, which forms into the tendon. Tears in the middle of larger muscle groups are also typical. While pain is inevitable with specific activities, there are 3 unmistakable signs that a torn muscle has occurred.
1. Sharp pain after an activity
An intense, sharp, and shooting pain is a common sign of an injured or torn muscle. This pain is intense and sustained, unlike the gradual soreness from overuse. Most injuries occur suddenly during physical activity, a collision, or by overextending the muscle. The individual can often link the sharp pain with a specific incident. The pain is also localized to a particular area and does not go away, unlike the dull ache common with soreness. Should this happen, stop physical activity and rest immediately, as pushing through the pain will only worsen the injury.
Torn muscles typically affect a single muscle, compared to the soreness of multiple muscles. Swelling sometimes occurs immediately after the sharp pain. The sudden injury causes inflammation in the damaged muscle fibers. As a result, the damaged area appears slightly larger than the surrounding muscle or compared to another. For instance, a calf tear can appear somewhat larger, with a bulge or lump, compared to the other calf. The skin may also feel tight or tender.
When a muscle tears, the fibers and tendons no longer connect effectively, and the muscle weakens significantly. Lifting objects or moving the impacted limb is difficult based on the degree of tear. A painful or sore muscle can still be used. However, with a torn muscle, the range of motion (ROM) is severely limited.
Do I need surgery?
These 3 red flags should signal an immediate visit to a doctor. The doctor can use physical tests and imaging to assess the muscle and confirm if a tear has occurred. Based on the degree of injury, the doctor can then provide treatment. In most cases, the doctor will implement the protection, rest, ice, compression, and elevation (PRICE) method. With effective pain management and physical therapy (PT), most tears can heal naturally. However, more severe tears or ruptures may require surgery. Surgery consists of reattaching the fibers or the tendon to the bone.
Look for the signs
Muscle pain and soreness are common after working out. However, sharp pains, swelling, and weakness are signs of a torn muscle. Some muscle tears need several weeks to heal conservatively, while other more severe tears may require surgery. Muscle tears can be frustrating, but paying attention to symptoms is the best way to return to physical activity safely and quickly.