Torn muscle

Sharp movements, for example during a sports activity, can cause torn muscles. A torn muscle usually becomes apparent when there is a sudden, shooting pain. It usually heals without any after-effects, but this takes a while.

At a glance

  • Muscles are often torn when making sharp movements during sports, such as football or tennis.
  • This occurs due to excessive strain or load being placed on the musculature.
  • For torn muscles to heal, rest and ice are important.
  • Patience is also required because healing takes several weeks. 
  • The injury usually heals by itself with no after-effects.  
  • There is no scientific proof that treatments involving anti-inflammatory medication or therapies using the patient’s own blood and tissue have any effect.

Note: The information in this article cannot and should not replace a medical consultation and must not be used for self-diagnosis or treatment.

A jogger clutches the back of their thigh in pain.

What is a torn muscle?

When people move, they put strain on their muscles. The muscles consist of various structural components – individual muscle fibers form bundles of fibers, which are then grouped together to form a whole muscle.

When excessive strain is placed on a muscle during exercise, muscle fibers can become overstretched until they tear. If the injury only involves overstretching, the result is muscle strain (also known as a pulled muscle).

A torn muscle involves one or more fibers tearing. This injury usually becomes apparent when there is a sudden pain in the relevant limb. Depending on the severity, it may be impossible to put any weight or strain on it, and it may initially be almost impossible to move it.

Torn muscles often occur when someone is doing a sports activity involving quick movements, sprints, turns and stops. These include tennis, football and rugby, for instance.

Tiredness, cold weather, infections and various other factors can increase the risk of a torn muscle.

A torn muscle usually heals on its own. However, some rapid actions immediately after the injury, such as applying an ice pack, are advisable.

What are the symptoms of a torn muscle?

A torn muscle typically involves a sudden, shooting pain. This continues until the person is hardly able to put any weight or strain on the muscle group or limb.

A torn muscle typically involves a sudden, shooting pain.

People with a torn muscle often adopt an incorrect, protective posture, putting all their weight on one leg and limping, for example.

There may also be a bump or swelling in the affected area, as well as visible bruising.

What causes a torn muscle?

When a muscle tears, tiny parts of the muscle are torn apart. The individual fibers form bundles which altogether make up a muscle.

The injury typically affects skeletal muscles, e.g. the biceps femoris, which is located at the back of the thigh and flexes the leg.

Excessive strain or, more rarely, bangs or accidents, can briefly exert forces on the muscle that it is unable to withstand. Consequently, the fibers tear.

What are the risk factors for a torn muscle?

Various factors increase the risk of a torn muscle. The most common include:

  • training too hard, excessive strain
  • the muscles being very tired
  • not warming up, or not doing it properly
  • lack of muscle flexibility
  • muscle weakness
  • not taking enough fluids and nutrients
  • poor posture or muscular injuries

Previous muscle injuries and sprains also increase the risk of getting a torn muscle.

Another factor that makes a torn muscle more likely to occur is being older.

How common is a torn muscle?

Torn muscles are among the most common sports injuries. Depending on the nature and intensity of the physical activity, between 8 and 25 percent of sportspeople will experience a muscle injury at some point in their life.

Torn muscles are among the most common sports injuries.

A thigh injury is particularly common. This can range from a mild muscle strain, through a torn muscle fiber to a complete muscle tear.

What is the outlook for a torn muscle?

A torn muscle usually heals without any complications or long-term consequences. However, this is only possible if the injury is looked after properly.

Healing can take quite some time. Depending on the severity of the torn muscle, it is a good idea to avoid exercise for 2 to 8 weeks.

Important: If the injured person begins exercising again before the torn muscle has healed, they are at an increased risk of being injured again.

How can torn muscles be prevented?

To prevent muscle injury, training should match the individual’s capabilities, and placing excessive strain on muscles should be avoided.

It’s also important to warm up before the activity.

How is a torn muscle diagnosed?

When a torn muscle is suspected, it is a good idea to consult the family doctor or a specialist in sports medicine. First, the doctor will ask about the case history – when did the pain first appear? Can weight still be put on the leg?

Doctors usually identify a torn muscle through the typical symptoms. A physical examination enables the doctor to see whether there is any swelling at the site or whether there is any missing tissue that could indicate that the entire muscle is torn.

Swollen and torn muscles are often easy to see via an ultrasound test. In some cases, a magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) scan is used to examine deep, recurring muscle injuries. This procedure also enables a better assessment of when sportspeople can resume training.

How is a torn muscle treated?

Doctors recommend an initial treatment known as RICE: 

  • R for rest: stop exercising and rest
  • I for ice: apply an ice-pack to the injury
  • C for compression: put on a compression bandage
  • E for elevate: raise the relevant part of the body

These initial measures aim to reduce bleeding in the tissue and swelling in order to prevent further damage.

Important: Other treatments such as physiotherapy, painkillers (e.g. ibuprofen or anti-inflammatory glucocorticoids), and therapies using the patient’s own blood and tissue, are also available. To date, studies have not demonstrated that these reduce pain or accelerate healing. Painkillers should be taken for one week at most and only if the treatment proves effective.

In cooperation with the Institute for Quality and Efficiency in Health Care (Institut für Qualität und Wirtschaftlichkeit im Gesundheitswesen – IQWiG).

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