Last week when I picked up my daughter at dance, I noticed her limping to the truck. When I asked her why she was limping, she went on to explain what I often hear and have seen from my athletes. This being the first time she ever experienced such a feeling, I felt it was a great teachable moment for her to understand the difference between a pulled muscle (Muscle Strain) and a muscle cramp and why they occur.
To most, a cramp and strain may ‘feel’ the same, but the onset of these occur for different reasons and very different ways. How do you know the difference? The easiest way to determine one versus the other is simple. Does immediately stretching the muscle provide relief or cause you more pain? If immediate relief is felt, it’s likely just cramping. If the act of stretching seems to cause more pain and you cannot get a good stretch, it is more likely a strain where you have partially cause some micro-tears in the muscle, but the majority of the muscle fibers are still intact.
An acute strain can be quite painful, depending on the severity of the injury. Strains are usually graded as follows:
• Grade I Strain: Mild discomfort, often minimal disability. Usually minimal or no limits to activity.
• Grade II Strain: Moderate discomfort, and limited ability to perform activities, may have swelling and bruising associated.
• Grade III Strain: Severe injury that can cause disability. Often patients complain of muscle spasm, swelling and significant bruising.
In her case, knowing the amount of dancing she had been doing as well as knowing her the wonky diet of a 13 year old girl, I could immediate deduce that she had cramps from overly exerting her body and not properly ‘fueling’ it to accommodate the demands of rigorous exercise. When we do not provide adequate nutrients for our body, our body will begin to shut down in the form of cramping. We see this often in athletes who are exercising in intense heat or extreme conditions such a marathon. Hence our constant preaching’s to runners about proper nutrition when training for a marathon being MORE important than the mileage they run. If not observed soon enough, the body will go into survival mode and slowly start to cramp up more and more. It can become a very unpleasant experience where an IV and ice packs are the only means of slowing this process down. Eventually, a single calf cramp can spread and lead to the quads and hamstrings cramping, then into the upper torso. If not treated quickly, could lead to some serious problems.
This is why it is always important to have a firm grasp on your fitness and nutrition levels at all times when increasing your training or training in new conditions. Don’t forget that your body will perform provided that you properly fuel it to do so.