Spoiler alert: It's not a quick and easy process. Here, experts answer "how long does it take for muscles to heal?" when you're dealing with a minor to severe strain.
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When you up the weight on the squat rack or power through some unfamiliar plyometric moves during your Monday morning workout, you know to expect some sore (and swole) muscles for the next day or two. But if those aches and pangs don't ease up by Friday, you might be dealing with a pulled muscle, aka a muscle strain or muscle tear.

"Generally, a pulled muscle will happen when you are subjected to a load or a force that the muscle is not quite prepared for or is not sufficiently trained for," says Leada Malek, P.T., D.P.T., C.S.C.S., S.C.S., a board-certified sports specialist and physical therapist. "It overloads the muscle's ability to control it, so then you get these little microtears in or along the muscle."

And those little tears are just as fun (re: agonizing) as you'd imagine. Here, physical therapists break down the different types of muscle strains, explain common treatment methods, and more importantly, answer the question, "How long does it take for pulled muscles to heal?"

The Different Types of Pulled Muscles — and How Long It Takes to Heal Them

In order to answer "how long does a pulled muscle take to heal?" you first need to understand the different types — or in this case, grades — of muscle strains. Currently, experts take a MRI of the affected area and then, based on the injury severity, use a five-point grading system — ranging from grade 0 to grade 4 — to describe the strain, says Malek. Since a grade 0 injury typically presents itself as muscle soreness after exercise or delayed-onset muscle soreness (DOMS) and the MRI will look normal, doctors are generally most concerned with grades 1 through 4, she says.

That said, you can't know exactly which grade of a strain you're dealing with — and the best way to treat it — until you get it checked out by a physician. That's why Malek recommends seeing a doctor about your acute muscle pain or soreness if it lasts more than five days, as delayed-onset muscle soreness will typically dissipate three to five days after a new or challenging activity, she explains. You'll also want to book an appointment if there's visible bruising to the area, if you feel a gap in your muscle, or if you felt a pop, she says. "If something doesn't feel right or there's pain that lasts for a while, you should definitely check it out with someone because the longer you wait to treat something, the longer it may respond to treatment," she adds. "It'll get better faster if you go in right away." (Related: Is Working Out When Sore a Bad Idea?)

Not to mention, putting off medical attention may cause you to limp or use your injured muscle differently to compensate for the pain, and eventually, those movements can become your norm and cause more problems down the line, says Evie Vlahakis, P.T., a physical therapist in New York City. "But if you take care of the injury and go to the physical therapist, you'll have your normal movement come back," she says.

Grade 1 Pulled Muscle

On an MRI, a grade 1 injury typically shows up as small tears to the muscle, and it's "really common and it's easily healed," says Vlahakis. With this type of pulled muscle, you might feel pain during or after your activity, and after a day or two, you may feel some soreness or weakness when you try to use the muscle or perform an exercise that targets it, adds Malek. (Wait, is lower back pain ever normal after a workout?)

"There are a couple of ways a minor strain can occur, and one of them is just sports — a running sport or impact sport of any kind can cause a small muscle strain," says Vlahakis. But this type of strain can also be caused by repetitive microtrauma to a muscle, such as by constantly lifting or loading heavy objects, she explains. "It didn't hurt them the first three times, but after weeks of doing this particular lifting task, they end up injuring themselves…[and developing] a grade one," she says. "It doesn't have to be a sports injury. It can happen with everyday life." (BTW, these tips will help you prevent some of the most common running injuries.)

How long does this pulled muscle take to heal?

If you follow the recommended treatment plan (more on that in a sec), you'll likely feel better within as little as one to five days, says Malek. But the go-to RICE — rest, ice, compression, and elevation — method might not be your best bet, she says. "In January of [last] year, the British Journal of Sports Medicine published an article that there's a new way to immediately treat a pulled muscle, and instead of RICE, it's PEACE and LOVE — protection, elevation, avoid anti-inflammatories, compression, education, and then load, optimism, vascularization, and exercise," she explains. 

Translation: Immediately after the injury occurs, you'll want to get the area propped up, wrap it in a compression sleeve or tape, hold off on popping ibuprofen, and protect the muscle by resting for one to three days, she says. "They're suggesting to avoid ice because they think it may be delaying the healing process, and that also stands true for anti-inflammatories," she explains. "Personally, I think if someone is in excruciating pain and they need to use ice as an analgesic, by all means, that's fine. I think there's another aspect of the pain cycle that we have to accommodate, and that's just the mental note of like, 'My leg is in a ton of pain, I need to get a little ice on it.'" (Related: How I Learned to Appreciate My Body After Countless Running Injuries)

After those first few days, the LOVE component comes into play. But don't expect to go hard on the load (read: weight), vascularization (read: cardiovascular activity to improve blood flow to injured areas), and exercise elements. The key here is performing gentle, pain-free movement within your capacity, says Malek. If you have a hamstring injury, for example, try lying on your back with your legs extended and performing heel slides, smoothly moving your heel up to your butt and back down again, she suggests. "And really don't forget to stay positive," she says. "The optimism and the mental aspect of the injury is actually really important [in recovery]." (FYI, heel slides can also help you reengage your core after childbirth.)

Grade 2 Pulled Muscle

You can think of a grade 2 pulled muscle, which features moderate muscle tears, to be a lot like a run in a stocking, says Vlahakis. "You can see the run starting — it's not 100 percent perfect — but you can still put the stocking on," she says. "It's not completely ruptured off, it's not torn completely." When it develops, you might feel an ache, cramp, or pain during an activity, and you may have to stop what you're doing, adds Malek. 

How long does this pulled muscle take to heal?

Follow the PEACE and LOVE method, and "you can expect to be out for roughly three to seven days before feeling like [the muscle] can tolerate activity again," says Malek. That said, physical therapy is generally recommended for injuries classified as grade 2 or higher, and this can last a few weeks, says Malek. There, you'll perform light movement that'll help heal — not aggravate — your injury and put you on track for a full recovery, she says. (See also: How to Stay Fit — and Sane — When You're Injured)

Grade 3 Pulled Muscle

A grade 3 pulled muscle involves extensive tears to the muscle, and a person with this type of injury may feel a sharp, stabbing pain and "fall to the ground, and their range of motion within 24 hours is pretty shot — it's significantly reduced," says Malek. "In the case of a hamstring strain, they can't walk."

How long does this pulled muscle take to heal?

The exact recovery period depends on the severity of the injury and the specific muscle, but generally, you could be out for 10 weeks to six months, says Malek. Your doctor may recommend immobilization — meaning they'll put a cast, boot, or splint on the affected area for an extended period of time — then once it's healed a bit, going in for physical therapy, says Malek. "Throughout this time in physical therapy, we're carefully monitoring the muscle and initiating light movement as able and loading when appropriate," she says. Then, "we're gradually getting into a more specific plan of care (i.e. strength, endurance, power, speed, sports-related movement)." In some cases, though, surgery to repair the muscle may be an option, particularly "if you're someone who's very active and not getting surgery poses more risks than benefits for you," she says.

Grade 4 Pulled Muscle

Of all the types of pulled muscles, a grade 4 is the most severe, as the entire muscle or tendon is completely torn, says Malek. "The person will experience significant pain," she explains. "They may feel, like, a pop or if they feel the muscle, they'll feel a big gap." And this "significant" pain isn't just an intense, spasm-like feeling. "Some people describe it as being shot — people have told me they look around to see who shot them," adds Vlahakis. "You'll get black and blue right away, swollen, and you cannot use it."

How long does this pulled muscle take to heal?

In this case, surgery may be required — and fast. "We can't wait [on medical attention] because if you could get a very easy surgery to put it back together, it'll be better to get it sooner," says Vlahakis. "When a biceps tendon ruptures, it just falls and hangs, [so you want to] tack it back to where it needs to be before it gets too short and too weak to repair." Just like a grade 3 injury, how long it takes to heal this type of pulled muscle depends on the affected muscle. For example, you might need three to six months of rehabilitation after surgery for a torn hamstring, three months for a torn bicep tendon, and four to six months for a torn rotator cuff before you can resume your usual workouts or athletic activities, according to the American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons. If your injury doesn't require surgery, you still might be out for at least 12 to 16 weeks, says Malek.

How to Prevent a Pulled Muscle

To keep those minor to excruciating injuries at bay — and avoid those tedious healing times — you'll want to revamp your workout routine. Start by swapping your static stretching pre-sweat sesh with a dynamic warm-up, which features similar movements to the ones you'll do during your workout, just at a slower pace, suggests Malek. This helps prep the muscle groups that'll be used during your workout and may help prevent injury, she says. "It's a bit weak on the evidence, but it certainly improves performance," she explains. "So if you improve your performance, then you're less likely to fall apart, to sustain a little bit of an injury."

During your workout itself, incorporate exercises that work the same muscle in different ways (think: a variety of loads, speeds, and types of contractions). If you're training your hamstrings, for instance, add hamstring curls, deadlifts, good mornings, and Nordic hamstring curls to your leg day regimen — not just one of these exercises, says Malek. "They each position the body slightly differently, target the muscles with both eccentric and concentric [movements] and if you're placing different loads on it, then you're preparing the muscle for more," she explains. 

Preventing muscle imbalances, meaning one side of your body is stronger than the other, is also key. "Anywhere there's an imbalance, the rest of your muscles will compensate," says Vlahakis. "Then when you overload [the weaker] group of muscles or a specific muscle, that's going to be the most at risk [for a muscle strain]." To keep your muscles equally powerful, incorporate unilateral training into your routine, working one side of the body at a time with exercises like the single-arm overhead press, single-arm row, pistol squat, and Turkish get-up.

Outside of the gym, Vlahakis recommends finding balance; stretch on the days you sit at a desk from 9 to 5 and don't hit up a standing-room-only concert on the days you train for a marathon. "Be careful of how you live and what you're loading your body with," she cautions. "Lifting, exercising, and vacuuming all in the same day — that's a good way to create more problems. You have to balance out your activities to not overload the joints or overload on the same movement."