What to Do When You Pull or Tear a Quadriceps Muscle

Signs, Symptoms, and First Aid

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A torn quad muscle generally causes a sharp, acute, pain in the front of the thigh that will most likely stop an athlete in his tracks. A less severe injury, such as a quadriceps pull or strain, may cause tightness and discomfort, but stopping activity and getting first aid is still the most important part of healing the injury.

Overview

The quadriceps muscle group actually includes four muscles located in the front (anterior) of the thigh. This muscle group acts to extend the leg. A pulled or strained quadriceps muscle causes pain in the front of the thigh. A muscle tear causes an abrupt, sudden, acute pain that occurs during activity (often while sprinting). It may be accompanied by swelling or bruises on the thigh.

Causes

The quadriceps are often injured during sprinting, kicking, hurdling, and other field sports that require bursts of speed or sudden contractions of the quads. When a runner is accelerating, the quads are contracting forcefully and if the runner is tight, fatigued, or not properly warmed up, this force can be greater than the muscles can withstand and they can be torn, or strained.

Signs and Symptoms

Muscle strains and tears are generally graded from less severe (Grade 1) to more severe (Grade 3).

It's hard to mistake the sensation of a Grade 3 strain of the quadriceps. The symptoms are sudden and obvious and include a sudden sharp pain along the front of the thigh or groin an immediate swelling or bruising along with limited mobility and inability to weight bear on the injured leg.

In contrast, a Grade 1 quadriceps injury may feel like a twinge or ache along the front of the thigh and an athlete may even feel that he can continue playing, despite a general discomfort and tightness in the thigh.

Regardless of the degree of the injury, any time an athlete feels pain, sudden twinges, or an unusual tightness, it's wise to stop playing and evaluate the injury. Most aches and pains go away within a day or two, but if your pain continues to linger longer than that, it may be time to see a physical therapist or orthopedic surgeon before that mild pain becomes chronic.

When to See the Doctor

If there is a sudden pop, pain, or obvious injury, get it checked out by a medical professional and get the proper first aid as well as rehab before getting back to activity.

Treatment and Recovery

For immediate relief of muscle strains and pulls, follow the P.O.L.I.C.E. treatment plan (this principle has replaced the "RICE" method of rest, ice, compression and elevation). POLICE stands for:

  • Protection: Similar to rest; also includes assistive devices like crutches
  • Optimum Loading: Return to activity and movement soon after the injury, but gradually
  • Ice
  • Compression
  • Elevation

For serious muscle strains and tears, work with a rehab specialist to set up the appropriate return to activity plan for you.

Once activity is started again, ice the muscle after exercise to reduce any swelling. An anti-inflammatory can be helpful to reduce pain and inflammation. After applying the ice, wrap your thigh in an ACE bandage to keep it compressed.

If running is continued during recovery, it must be easy, without sudden sprints. Pay attention to signs of pain or increased tenderness, and reduce exercise if any develops. Full return to activity depends on the mechanism and severity of the injury.

Prevention

The best way to prevent a quadriceps injury is by strengthening the quadriceps muscles while keeping the entire lower body strong, flexible and balanced. It's also important to maintain flexibility in the hamstrings and quadriceps. Consider doing stretches for runners after each workout, including stretching of the quadriceps (don't stretch when you have a strain, though).

Exercises for the Quadriceps

These exercises can be used to strengthen and tone your quadriceps:

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Article Sources

  1. Kary JM. Diagnosis and management of quadriceps strains and contusions. Curr Rev Musculoskelet Med. 2010;3(1-4):26-31. doi:10.1007/s12178-010-9064-5

  2. Eckard TG, Kerr ZY, Padua DA, Djoko A, Dompier TP. Epidemiology of Quadriceps Strains in National Collegiate Athletic Association Athletes, 2009-2010 Through 2014-2015. J Athl Train. 2017;52(5):474-481. doi: 10.4085/1062-6050-52.2.17

  3. American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons. Sprains, Strains and  Other Soft-Tissue Injuries.

  4. Bleakley CM, Glasgow P, Macauley DC. PRICE needs updating, should we call the POLICE?. Br J Sports Med. 2012;46(4):220-1. doi: 10.1136/bjsports-2011-090297

  5. Wong S, Ning A, Lee C, Feeley BT. Return to sport after muscle injury. Curr Rev Musculoskelet Med. 2015;8(2):168-75. doi:10.1007/s12178-015-9262-2

  6. American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons. Muscle Strains in the Thigh.

Additional Reading