Muscle Aches, Sprains, and Strains

Anytime you ask a muscle to do something that it's not used to doing (such as running ten extra miles or lifting extra-heavy weights), the muscle can respond with pain. Muscle pain also can be caused by an acute injury, such as a fall, or chronic (also known as overuse) injuries. It can range from mild (a dull ache or twinge) to intense (significant pain or stiffness).

Sprains and strains are some of the most common sports injuries. A sprain is an injury to the ligaments, which are the fibrous bands that attach muscle to bone. A strain is an injury to a muscle or tendon, which is the structure that attaches a muscle to another muscle. Both sprains and strains occur when the tissue is stretched (or torn) because it's been pulled past its normal range of motion.

Conventional treatment for sprains and strains uses what the experts call PRICE: protect, rest, ice, compression, and elevation. That means you immediately stop using the affected joint (protect it and give it a rest), apply ice or a cold pack and gentle compression (via an elastic wrap), and elevate the joint, all of which will help reduce the swelling.

If you sprain something, you'll know it. In some cases, you'll hear a popping sound as the ligaments are overextended. In all cases, you'll experience almost immediate swelling and pain. You should see a doctor if these symptoms are severe (if you can't put any weight at all on the ankle, for example).

If you've sustained a strain (what many people call a “pulled muscle”), you'll feel immediate pain and increasing stiffness (and possible swelling) over the next few hours. The most common cause of strains are sudden, powerful contractions of a muscle group — like when you slip and fall on the ice, lunge to return a tennis shot, or jump to sink a basket.

Herbal Helpers

To fight the pain of most muscle injuries, you can skip the NSAIDs in favor of these herbal remedies:

Arnica (Arnica montana)

Arnica is a classic remedy for all kinds of aches, including the sportsinduced kind. Studies have confirmed its use as a remedy for soft-tissue (i.e., muscle) injuries.

Cayenne (Capsicum annuum, C. frutescens)

These peppers contain a chemical called capsaicin, which can be applied topically to produce a warming sensation and reduce pain (it's the key ingredient in many OTC muscle rubs).

Comfrey (Symphytum officinale)

This herb is used topically to treat all kinds of sports injuries, including injuries to muscles, tendons, and ligaments.

Eucalyptus (Eucalyptus globulus)

The oil from this Australian plant is used topically as an analgesic and anesthetic.

Peppermint (Mentha x piperita)

Peppermint contains menthol, a natural anesthetic and painkiller. Menthol also produces a soothing, cooling sensation.

Pineapple (Ananas comosus)

Pineapple's active constituent, bromelain, can be taken internally to treat a variety of sports injuries and trauma. Studies have shown that it can reduce inflammation, swelling, and bruising.

Saint John's wort (Hypericum perforatum)

This herb produces an oil that's used topically to treat muscle and joint injuries (it's got analgesic, antiedemic, and anesthetic constituents). It also works as an anti-inflammatory and antispas

Yarrow (Achillea millefolium)

Yarrow relieves pain and swelling and is a classic remedy for swelling, bruising, and muscle soreness.

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