Should you foam roll a pulled muscle? Why or why not?

Should you foam roll a pulled muscle? Why or why not?

tennis player suffering pulled muscle injury

Written by Nic Bartolotta

Nic Bartolotta is a physical therapist and holistic health practitioner. He holds a Master of Physical Therapy (MPT) degree from Cal State University - Long Beach and has worked with hundreds of professional athletes from the MLB, NFL, NBA, and NHL. Nic is known for his expertise in injury prevention, rehabilitation, and sports performance enhancement. He specializes in myofascial release techniques to address soft tissue restrictions. He is also the Chief Clinical Officer of Rolflex.

If you've ever experienced a pulled muscle, you know how painful and stressful it can be. While traditional treatments like RICE can help alleviate some of the pain, you may be wondering if foam rolling might help you heal more quickly or cause even more pain. The question of whether or not you should foam roll a pulled muscle is a common one, and the answer depends on the severity of the strain, nature of the injury, and your timeline for recovery. But to clarify that answer for you, we'll explore the benefits & risks of foam rolling a pulled muscle so you can make an informed decision about how to treat and recover from your injury.

What is a pulled muscle?

A pulled muscle occurs when muscle fibers are stretched or torn due to excessive force, overuse, or fatigue. Also known as a muscle strain or tear, a pulled muscle is usually caused by sudden, forceful movements or not warming up properly before engaging in intense physical activity. 

These injuries are most common in muscles located along the posterior chain (back of your body) like the lower back, hamstrings, and calves. However, pulled quads and groins are also common in athletes whose sport requires forceful contractions and constant change of direction.

Running and jumping are the primary culprits for these injuries as the very nature of these motions places excessive load and strain on the muscles. “If the muscle isn’t ready to handle that force because it’s fatigued, not fully warmed up, or already injured, it’s likely to tear” says Gary Vitti, ex-NBA trainer for the Los Angeles Lakers. 

A pulled muscle is accompanied by acute pain, swelling, stiffness, and loss of mobility, and will feel remarkably different than your average muscle soreness. The severity of these symptoms depends on the grade of tear you experience. Pulled muscles are usually classified into three grades: 

  • Grade 1 (Mild) - Minor damage to a small number of muscle fibers. The muscle & surrounding tissue will be tender and sore, but it’s uncommon to lose much strength or mobility, if at all. Depending on your physical condition and the muscles involved, Grade 1 strains usually heal within 1-2 weeks.

  • Grade 2 (Moderate) - Significant damage to a greater number of muscle fibers, which likely includes some fibers being fully torn. You will experience significant pain, swelling, and bruising in the first few days, as well as a significant reduction in strength and range of motion. Grade 2 strains take several weeks and physical therapy before returning to activity.
  • Grade 3 (Severe) - A complete tear or rupture of the muscle. Grade 3 strains cause severe pain, swelling, and bruising, as well as a near complete loss of strength and mobility. In some cases, the torn muscle may be visible from the surface of the skin. Full tears typically require medical intervention (best case - physical therapy, worst case - surgery) and will take several months to restore muscle function.

But in all three cases, the injured muscle is not the only affected area. Muscles are wrapped in a connective tissue called fascia. This soft tissue provides structural support, ensuring that your muscles glide smoothly against one another during movement. Without fascia, the musculoskeletal system would be unable to function and constantly be at risk for injury. 

And because the fascia surrounds every muscle in the human body, a pulled muscle also means a torn fascia. And when this tissue is injured, it can be difficult to repair. Not to mention, a muscle can leave you immobile for weeks, causing your other muscles to atrophy. 

Stages of recovery

A pulled muscle can happen in an instant from a seemingly simple movement. The recovery, on the other hand, is a bit more complex. It's generally broken down into three phases: 

  1. Inflammatory - Though no muscle repair is occurring, this is the first stage of the healing process. It usually lasts for the first 48 to 72 hours following the injury. During that time, your body's immune response sends white blood cells, nutrients, and fluid to the injured muscle to help begin the healing process.

    This stage is accompanied by pain, swelling, and general inflammation around the area, all of which are normal responses by the body. The inflammation removes damaged tissue and initiates the repair process.

    But you don't want to be stuck in this phase too long. Excessive or prolonged inflammation delays healing and can cause further nerve & tissue damage like sciatica. The best protocol to prevent this from happening is a combination of RICE (Rest, Ice, Compression, and Elevation) and anti-inflammatory medications like ibuprofen.

  2. Proliferation - This is the first stage of muscle repair. Your body generates new tissue to replace the damaged muscle fibers and build a temporary support structure (extracellular matrix). While that's happening, your body also builds new capillaries to supply blood and other nutrients.

    Think of it like constructing a new house, where temporary supports are put in place to build the foundation of the home, all while plumbing & electrical systems are being run throughout the home. 

  3. Remodeling - The extracellular matrix is replaced by mature scar tissue, providing the necessary support to the area. The newly formed tissue undergoes a complex process that ultimately improves its mechanical strength and restores your mobility and function.

    Keeping with the home construction analogy, the remodeling phase is the equivalent to finishing the home, adding flooring, cabinetry, and furniture. Essentially, your muscle is nearing full health. 

Treating a pulled muscle

Even though it may seem simple, RICE is still the best way to treat a pulled muscle in the first 48-72 hours. But you can't RICE your way back to full strength; your body needs active rehabilitation. And it needs it at the right time. 

foam rolling to rehab pulled calf muscle

Foam rolling a pulled muscle

When a muscle is strained or torn, the myofascial tissue that surrounds it also becomes damaged. Adhesions & knots develop on the connective tissue, causing acute pain and limiting mobility & function. And unfortunately, they don't just disappear over time. 

Foam rolling breaks up these adhesions & knots in the myofascial tissue, enabling the muscle to move and heal freely. The mechanical force of the roller improves blood flow, increases flexibility, and promotes muscle relaxation, all of which are beneficial to restoring muscle function

As a physical therapist, this is one of the most common questions I get asked: “Should you foam roll a pulled muscle?” And much like every answer about the human body, it depends.  

Foam rolling can be a way to rehabilitate a pulled muscle, but only if done properly. You should not foam roll a pulled muscle during the first 48-72 hours after a grade 1 strain. For grade 2 strains, you’ll likely face a longer inflammatory phase, meaning a foam rolling session may be 7-10 days away at best. 

Unfortunately, if you're recovering from a grade 3 strain, foam rolling is not a viable option until after reparative surgery. But once you’ve begun physical therapy, foam rolling will help accelerate your return to activity by stimulating healthy tissue growth and restoring your mobility. 

When the time comes to start foam rolling, whether it’s 3 days or 3 weeks from now, be extra cautious to avoid aggravating the injury. Start by foam rolling the surrounding muscles to stimulate blood flow and promote healing. When you’re ready to foam roll the injured muscle, apply minimal pressure and gradually increase as your pain allows. You may also experiment with muscle roller sticks or massage guns to test varying pressures and angles. 

Deep tissue massage

Massages can be an effective treatment for a pulled muscle because they help facilitate the healing process and promote muscle relaxation. Targeted pressure and strategic manipulation of the damaged soft tissue improves blood flow, supplying the area with oxygen and nutrients it needs to repair itself. Similar to foam rolling, they reduce muscle tension, break up scar tissue, and alleviate adhesions, resulting in increased flexibility and a decreased likelihood of re-injury. Furthermore, massages stimulate the release of endorphins, the body's natural pain-relieving chemicals.

But just like foam rolling, a deep tissue massage on the affected area will do far more harm than good. If you schedule a massage the day after your muscle injury to kickstart your recovery, you'll likely end up in more pain and a longer recovery plan. Wait at least 72 hours before a massage. And if it's not already evident by the localized swelling & bruising, inform your massage therapist beforehand of your injury so they can plan accordingly. 

Massages aren’t the most accessible treatment option though; they're time consuming and expensive. And though your body is undergoing physiological change, your psychological state plays a major role in your recovery. And a 90-minute massage that cuts into your day and even deeper into your pockets will only cause stress & anxiety that delay the healing process

That’s why we created the Rolflex, the only
muscle massage roller that mimics the thumb of a sports therapy masseuse. It allows you to rehab your pulled muscle from the comfort of your couch, without having to spend the time or money at an expensive massage facility. 

foam rolling pulled arm muscle on the couch

Is it good to stretch a pulled muscle?

Generally speaking, no, it’s not healthy to perform static stretching on a pulled muscle. 

Stretching a pulled muscle can be dangerous, especially in the early stages of recovery. If you try to stretch a cold muscle, even when completely healthy, you’ll place yourself at an increased risk of injury. This risk is even greater when the particular muscle is already injured. Stretching disrupts and delays the tissue replacement process, whereas foam rolling and massages help facilitate the process. 

Recovering from a pulled muscle is difficult. But under the right conditions and focused rehabilitation, you’ll be back to activity in no time. For grade 1 & 2 strains, foam rolling can be an effective tool to treat a pulled muscle, especially when paired with RICE. It promotes blood & nutrient flow to the injured area, breaks down damaged scar tissue, and stimulates healthy soft tissue growth. It’s a better option than stretching and a lower-cost & time investment than a professional massage. Ultimately, the decision is up to you and what makes sense for your recovery process and timeline. But if you want to get back on your feet sooner, foam rolling should be an integral part of your daily routine.

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