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Pulling or tearing: it's all the same to your muscles

While skiing last winter I hurt my calf muscle. How do you tell the difference between a pulled muscle and a torn one? Also, what is the difference in healing time for each? And lastly, how can one speed the healing of an aching muscle?

-- Karen A., Ashland

Whether you say you've pulled a muscle or torn it, the injury is basically the same, says Dr. Alan Webb, a Medford orthopedist.

Muscle injuries shouldn't be confused with the soreness and stiffness that occur after serious exercise. This sensation is caused by the accumulation of lactic acid in the muscle fibers, and it typically passes within a few hours or a day at most. If you're hurting for several days, you have an injury.

Physical damage to the muscle fibers causes the pain we associate with pulled or torn muscles. The fibers stretch, but they have their limit. When we exceed the limit, we may feel a sharp pain that tells us we've separated some of the fibers.

Webb says a completely torn muscle is rare, and it typically takes a lot more force than recreational athletes can muster to really tear a muscle.

The healing time for a muscle injury depends on the extent of the damage and other factors such as age and general health.

"All of us take a certain amount of time to heal," Webb says.

When an injury occurs, it's best to take the load off the muscle and stop the activity that caused the injury.

Unfortunately "there's no magic thing to do to relieve pain," Webb says.

Ice should be applied as soon as possible after the injury to reduce the swelling that contributes to the pain.

Webb recommends applying ice for 15 minutes every hour during the first 24 to 48 hours after an injury. After the first couple of days, swelling begins to recede and applying heat will help restore circulation to the injured muscle and promote recovery.

Gentle moist heat, like that of a hot tub, is generally better than dry heat, Webb says, because dry heat (like a heating pad) can burn skin more easily than moist heat.

Staying off the injured muscle long enough for it to heal is the most difficult part for some people, especially weekend athletes who don't want to miss out on the action.

Webb says four to six weeks isn't an unrealistic time to lay off for recovery. The injured muscle can begin doing mild exercises after two or three weeks of rest, but it's important to start slowly and make sure the activity level doesn't re-injure the muscle.

"Too much too soon and you're probably going to prolong your recovery," Webb says.

Muscle injuries usually heal well, but the healing process may leave scar tissue that could make the muscle prone to another injury in the same place.

For preventing injuries, Webb says stretching muscles and warming them up gradually before strenuous exercise can help reduce the chance of damaging muscle fibers.

Keeping fit can help prevent injuries, too. Webb says having adequate muscle tone can help a person react quickly enough to prevent a fall that could cause an injury or sprain an ankle.

"A general conditioning program is imperative," he says, especially for weekend athletes. "Just getting a reasonable amount of exercise for 30 minutes a few times a week can have huge benefits."

Knee problems, for example, can be minimized by strengthening the thigh muscles with straight leg raises done with a few pounds of weights on the ankle.

"They're boring," he says, "but they're joint friendly."

Call Bill Kettler with your medical questions at 776-4492, or e-mail them to: bkettler@mailtribune.com or send them to: Mail Tribune, Ask Your Doctors, P.O. Box 1108, Medford OR 97501.