How to Treat and Prevent a Pulled Quad Muscle

Runner stretching quadriceps to avoid injury
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The quadriceps muscle group includes four muscles at the front (anterior) of the thigh. The quad muscles work to extend the leg and are activated during high-speed activities such as running or jumping. If pulled or strained, the quads can cause pain in the front area of the thigh. Tightness and discomfort are often the first signs of a pulled quad muscle, and it's important athletes stop the activity and get first aid to begin healing the injury.

Signs and Symptoms

Muscle strains and tears are generally graded from less severe (Grade 1) to more severe (Grade 3). Pain along the front of the thigh or groin is the most typical symptom of a pulled quad. Athletes may also experience immediate swelling or bruising, limited mobility, or inability to bear weight on the injured leg.

  • Grade 1: A Grade 1 quadriceps injury may feel like a twinge or ache along the front of the thigh. An athlete may even feel that they can continue playing, despite general discomfort and tightness in the thigh.
  • Grade 2: With a Grade 2 injury, you may feel significant pain and experience a loss of strength in the leg. You may not be able to load weight onto the leg without causing considerable pain.
  • Grade 3: A Grade 3 injury is classified as a tear of the muscle causing severe pain and immediate loss of strength in the leg. You may also be unable to walk.

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 the pain lingers longer than that, it may be time to see a physical therapist or orthopedic surgeon before that mild pain becomes chronic.

When to Call the Doctor

If there is a sudden pop, pain, or obvious injury, get it checked out by a medical professional. You will need first aid as well as rehab before getting back to your regular activity.

Causes of a Pulled Quad

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. If the runner has tight muscles, is fatigued, or has not properly warmed up, this force can be greater than the muscles can withstand, and they can be torn or strained.

A pulled quad muscle often occurs due to overstretching, which can happen with an improper or accidental fall or overreach of the leg.

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 the original call to rest, this instruction also includes using assistive devices like crutches when appropriate.
  • Optimum Loading: Return to activity and movement soon after the injury, but gradually
  • Ice: Apply ice or a cold pack to help relieve pain.
  • Compression: Using a bandage, wrap your pulled muscle.
  • Elevation: Raise your quad by placing pillows underneath your leg while lying down.

However, note that the P.O.L.I.C.E. method is only intended to work for the first 48 to 72 hours. If you continue to experience pain after three days following an injury, consult your physician.

An anti-inflammatory medication can be helpful to reduce pain and inflammation. After applying ice, wrap your thigh in an ACE bandage to keep it compressed.

Recovery from a quad injury typically takes up to three weeks. Rest and refrain from sports until you no longer experience pain when activating your quad.

If pain and discomfort subside after three to five days, you generally may return to regular athletic activity. But it must be easy, without sudden sprints and changes in speed. Pay attention to signs of pain or increased tenderness, and reduce exercise if either develops. Exercise patience as you build up to your pre-injury routine. Full return to activity depends on the mechanism and severity of the injury.

For serious muscle strains and tears, work with a rehab specialist to set up an appropriate return-to-activity plan. Once activity is started again, ice the muscle after exercise to reduce any swelling.

Prevent Pulled Quad Muscles

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. Consider doing stretches for runners after each workout, including stretching the quadriceps (just don't stretch when you have a strain).

The following exercises can be used to strengthen and tone your quadriceps muscles:

After exercises, opt for a quick foam rolling session, as well. Help stretch your muscles and improve circulation to your quads to help prevent further injury. And don't forget to include cross-training to maintain a balanced workout routine.

Frequently Asked Questions

How do I tape a pulled quad?

You can help treat a mild pulled quad (Grade 1) using an ACE bandage or athletic tape. If you have a more severe pull, consult a physician or a sports doctor who will recommend a course of treatment.

Begin by wrapping pre-wrap around your quad, starting about an inch above the knee. The pre-wrap helps keep the athletic tape from sticking to your skin. Follow the pre-wrap layer with by wrapping the athletic tape around your quad, making sure to not apply too tightly.

What happens if you play with a pulled quad?

If you continue to run or play sports with a pulled quad, you risk further damage to the muscle group. Pausing your workout or stopping your run is a preventative measure and can ultimately lead to a faster recovery.

While you may be able to run through a Grade 1 quad pull, a more severe pull or tear will cause the inability to carry weight on your leg. When you experience a pull, it's best to step to the sidelines, rest, and assess the severity of the injury.

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