Although a pulled quad muscle isn’t the most common injury sustained by athletes, it often affects middle-aged or older adults who remain active. When this muscle becomes strained or torn, it causes symptoms that range from minor twinges to full-blown pain. Luckily, most pulled quad muscles are easily treated with home remedies. In this post, we tell you all you need to know about recognizing and treating a quad tear.
A pulled quad refers to a strained or torn quadriceps muscle. Located in the front of the thigh, the quadriceps muscles comprise the following:
While any of these muscles can become strained, the rectus femoris muscle is most likely to get injured. This is because, unlike the other quad muscles, it crosses over both the knee and hip joints. If the tear occurs at the point that the muscle becomes tendon (the musculotendinous junction), it may be referred to as a quad tendon tear.
Pulled quadriceps muscle injuries range in severity, from small strains to complete ruptures. Medical professionals grade these injuries from one to three to make it easier for doctors to diagnose and treat the tear.
Grades of Quadriceps Tendon Tear
Grade 1 Quad Tear
This level of injury is typically a minor strain or small micro-tear. It often causes a mild twinge or spasm and a feeling of tightness at the front of the thigh. Sometimes, people will not notice the injury until they stop training and the muscles cool down. Typically, a grade one tear is easy to treat and recovery is quick.
Grade 2 Quad Tear
A grade two tear is usually a partial quadriceps tendon tear. It may result in a sudden, sharp pain that causes athletes to stop playing. This grade of tear can impact a person’s mobility. With time, grade two tears heal, although recovery is slower than with a grade one injury.
Grade 3 Quad Tear
This is the most severe type of pulled quad. It involves a complete rupture of the muscle. Athletes will feel pain immediately after the muscle is damaged, and they will also experience swelling and bruising at the front of the thigh within 24 hours. Mobility is severely impacted and most people are unable to walk without crutches or a cane. Recovery takes several weeks.
Causes of a Pulled Quad Muscle
Essentially, a pulled quad muscle occurs when the muscle becomes overstretched or damaged. In some cases, the muscle can completely tear. A pulled quad muscle usually results from an activity that involves the legs, such as running, kicking, or jumping.
Direct impact with the quads tends to cause contusions rather than strains or tears. These require slightly different treatments to pulled quad injuries.
Several factors increase the likelihood of experiencing a quad muscle tear or strain. These include:
Failure to warm-up properly. A proper warm-up routine loosens out tight muscles and increases the range of motion of the joint. When muscles and joints are more flexible, they are less likely to become injured.
Weak muscles. Having weak muscles or a lack of muscle mass increases the risk of pulled or torn muscles. Older adults or those who do not engage in strength training are more likely to have weak muscles.
Tired muscles often provide inadequate support to the joints. When you are fatigued, you are less likely to maintain proper form and engage the right muscles. Improper form puts undue stress and strain on joints and muscles.
Poor footwear and exercise equipment. Wearing worn-out or unsuitable shoes and using poorly maintained sporting equipment puts you at increased risk of a pulled quad.
Activity environment. The surfaces you exercise on contribute to your overall risk of injury. If the ground is slippery or uneven, you are more likely to fall or overextend muscles in an effort to remain upright.
Quadriceps Tendon Tear Symptoms
Pulled quad symptoms vary depending on the severity of the injury. A grade one tear will cause:
A twinging or tight sensation in the thigh
Mild pain when walking and running
Small lump at the site of the injury
Grade two quad tear symptoms include:
Sudden, sharp pain at the time of injury
Inability to continue working out
Difficulty walking or fully bending the knee
Pain when pressing on the thigh
Grade three quadriceps tear symptoms include:
Severe, sudden pain
Inability to continue working out
Loss of mobility unless using crutches
If your muscle pain becomes debilitating or is accompanied by severe swelling, you should see your doctor for diagnosis and treatment. To diagnose a pulled quad, your doctor will ask about your symptoms and how you sustained the injury.
They will also perform a physical examination that involves checking the thigh for swelling, pain, and tenderness and moving the leg into several positions. As part of a complete quadriceps tendon tear test, you may be asked to straighten your knee. This portion of the assessment is painful, but it is a key step in helping doctors identify a pulled quad muscle.
In addition, your doctor may order imaging tests. Usually, for a quadriceps tendon tear, MRI scans are the best option. They show up the soft tissues in the leg, allowing the doctor to view the extent of the injury. Occasionally, an X-ray may be taken to rule out bone injuries as a source of pain.
How to Treat A Pulled Quad
Many people wonder how to heal a pulled quad at home. While home remedies are ideal for grade one strains, they may not be sufficient for more severe tears. We recommend using both medical and at home remedies for a more robust pulled quad treatment program.
Treatment options include:
Rest and Elevation
The first and most important step in any pulled quad muscle treatment program is to rest the muscle. During the initial three days after injury, you should avoid putting unnecessary weight on the leg to give it time to heal. Avoid exercises that focus on the lower body, including squats, lunges, running, and jumping. To alleviate swelling and pain, elevate the leg above heart level by propping the foot up on a cushion while lying down.
Icing the thigh during the first 72 hours will further reduce pain and inflammation. Place an ice pack on the pulled quad muscle for fifteen minutes at a time, several times day. Reduce the frequency of ice therapy as your symptoms improve. This large ice pack is ideal for treating thigh and leg injuries.
Compression Thigh Wrap
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Gentle compression can control the swelling associated with a grade two and grade three pulled quad. Wrap an elastic bandage around the thigh or use a special thigh compression wrap. You can also wear compression wraps when playing sports to prevent future quad injuries, particularly if you have weak thigh muscles.
Non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) can provide quick pain relief. Some NSAIDs—such as aspirin, ibuprofen (Advil), and naproxen (Aleve)—are available over the counter. Avoid taking NSAIDs long term as they can cause stomach problems.
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Those with a grade three injury won’t be able to move about easily without extra support. Take the strain off your legs and enjoy better balance by using a pair of forearm crutches until you recover.
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Once the swelling subsides and the pain lessens—usually after the first five to seven days—you can begin a rehabilitation program comprising stretching and strengthening exercises. Before beginning, warm up the muscles with a moist heat pack or heating pad.
Stretching exercises for pulled quad muscles include:
Stand up straight. Reach one hand behind you and raise your leg. Grab your ankle with your hand and bring your heel up toward your buttocks. Keep your knees together and your back straight throughout this stretch. Hold for 30 seconds before repeating three times.
Hip Flexor Stretch
This hip flexor stretch focuses on the rectus femoris and is also used to recover from hip flexor strain. Get down on one knee (kneeling on the injured leg). With a straight back, push your hips forward. You should feel a stretch in the hip and upper thigh of the injured leg. Hold for 30 seconds before repeating three times. Perform this activity three times daily.
Straight Leg Raise
Lie down and lift one leg off the floor. Keep the knee straight. Only raise the leg as much as you can without causing pain. Hold this position for five seconds before slowly lowering the leg to the ground. Repeat ten or twenty times each day, gradually increasing the number of repetitions as your recovery progresses.
Sit upright on a chair or table. Keep your back straight. Straighten out your knee as much as you can (without causing pain). Slowly lower your leg to the starting position. This is one repetition. Repeat for ten repetitions, doing two or three sets of ten reps. Once you can comfortably do this, start using resistance bands and gradually increase the resistance level as necessary.
Check with your doctor or physical therapist before starting an exercise regimen for your quad muscles.
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As your continue to recover, you may want to gradually return to sports and other activities. To reduce the risk of re-injury, many people wear a thigh brace while working out. The best braces support and stabilize the quad muscles while increasing circulation in the leg. This brace even provides additional support to the hip, hamstring, and groin.
Pulled Quad Recovery
When it comes to healing from a quad tear, recovery time varies significantly. People with a grade one tear will often feel better after two weeks of rest and home remedies. Those with a grade two tear may need up to six weeks before they feel better.
For grade three pulled quad muscles, recovery takes even longer. Most people won’t be able to return to their full activities until ten or twelve weeks after injury.
You’ll know that you have made a full recovery when you no longer have pain in the quad muscle and you can move around with ease. To avoid re-injury, return to activities slowly and take precautions.
To prevent a pulled quad muscle, try the following:
Warm up fully with a stretching routine before engaging in sports or other exercises.
Apply a heat source to the quads for fifteen minutes before activities, especially in cold weather.
Stop exercising if the quads feel tight or begin to spasm.
Gradually increase the duration, intensity, or frequency of an exercise routine.
Wear thigh supports such as compression wraps and braces.
It’s relatively common for older athletes to strain their quad muscles, especially if they engage in activities that involve running, jumping, or kicking. Although most cases of pulled quad muscle aren’t serious and resolve quickly, some quad injuries can put you out of action for several weeks or months.
Act fast when you feel the symptoms of a weak quad muscle and apply the most important pulled quadriceps treatments—rest, ice, and compression. Prevent future damage by supporting your legs with a brace and full warm-up routine.
Jessica Hegg is the content manager at ViveHealth.com. Avid gym-rat and nutrition enthusiast, she’s interested in all things related to staying active and living healthy lifestyle. Through her writing she works to share valuable information aimed at overcoming obstacles and improving the quality of life for others.
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