A groin strain is a muscle injury that can be painful. Treating a groin strain immediately can help it to heal. The recovery time can depend on how serious the injury is.

Groin strain affects any one of a group of muscles at the top of the thigh. The muscle can be partially or completely torn, which can cause considerable pain and discomfort. For a serious strain, physical therapy may be needed, and a person is often given exercises to do.

The return to a full range of movements should be done gradually. Intense physical activity may need to be avoided for weeks or months.

Fast facts on groin strain:

  • The groin is the area of the body where the stomach meets the legs.
  • Immediately treating a groin strain can prevent it worsening, and help it to heal.
  • Recovery time will depend on the seriousness of the groin strain.
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Groin strain is usually caused by a tear in the adductor longus muscle.
Image credit: BruceBlaus, (2015, November 10)

The main symptoms of groin strain are pain and tenderness in the area. Other symptoms include:

  • bruising or swelling of the inner thigh
  • pain when a person raises their knee
  • pain when a person closes or opens their legs
  • the groin or inner thigh may feel warmer than usual
  • muscles feel weak or tight
  • limping or difficulty moving the leg

Pain can range from a dull ache to sharp pain. The pain will often be worse when walking or moving the leg. A person may also experience spasms in the inner thigh muscles.

Groin strain grades

Muscles that move a part of the body, such as a leg or arm, are known as adductor muscles. Groin strain affects the adductor muscles in the inner thigh.

A groin strain is usually a muscle tear from an awkward or sudden movement. It often affects people who play active and competitive, physical sports.

Groin strains are graded with numbers 1 to 3, depending on how serious the injury is:

  • Grade 1 causes some pain and tenderness, but the stretch or muscle tear is minor.
  • Grade 2 causes pain, tenderness, weakness, and sometimes bruising.
  • Grade 3 is a severe tear of the muscle, causing bruising and a lot of pain.

Groin strain can be diagnosed by a doctor or a physical therapist. They will usually ask some questions to find out more about symptoms and how the injury was caused.

A medical professional will need to know what activity a person was doing when they first felt the pain. They will also ask an individual if they:

  • heard a popping sound when the injury happened
  • noticed swelling after the injury
  • feel pain when moving their leg

The appointment will usually include a physical examination. This is likely to involve feeling the muscle and gently moving the leg.

In some cases, more tests may be needed. These could include an X-ray or MRI scan to check that there is no other damage to the leg or pelvis.

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A doctor or physical therapist may treat groin pain with simple exercises.

Groin strain should be treated quickly, ideally in the first 24 to 48 hours after the injury. This is to reduce swelling and bleeding and to ease pain in the area.

A person will often be advised to rest their leg. Staying still and trying not to walk or exercise may help to stop the injury getting worse.

A person can raise the leg, for example, by resting it on a footstool. Gentle movement should be done after 48 hours.

Ice packs can be applied to the area. If an ice pack is not available, a bag of frozen vegetables can be used. Ice should not be put directly on the skin, as it can cause ice burns. An ice pack should be held on the area for 15 to 20 minutes every 2 hours.

Tying a bandage reasonably tightly around the top of the thigh may help. This is known as compression and should be done by a trained first responder if possible.

Over-the-counter painkillers can be taken to help relieve any discomfort.

A physical therapist can put together a treatment program to help with recovery. This usually includes exercises that will restore movement to the leg. Massage may help the soft tissue in the leg to recover.

A person should avoid moving their leg too much in the first 48 hours after the injury. After this, some simple exercises can help them to get back to a normal level of activity.

1. Floor stretch

  • lie on the floor face up
  • legs should be outstretched and straight
  • slowly move the right leg out to the side of the body
  • return the leg to a central position
  • repeat with the left leg

2. Chair lift

  • sit on a chair
  • keeping the knee bent, lift the right foot to just below hip level
  • hold for a few seconds
  • return foot to the floor
  • repeat with the left leg

3. Side lift

  • lie on the right side of the body
  • support the body by leaning on the right elbow
  • place left hand in front of the body for balance
  • keeping the left leg straight, gently lift upwards
  • swap to lie on the left side of the body and repeat the exercise

4. Knee squeeze

  • sit on a chair
  • place a soft ball or rolled towel between the knees
  • gently squeeze the ball or towel for a few seconds
  • repeat a few times

5. Knee bend

  • lie on the floor face up
  • legs should be outstretched and straight
  • keeping the foot on the floor, bend the right leg
  • repeat with the left leg

If the exercises are causing more pain, a person should stop doing them and seek medical advice.

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A sudden, forceful movement may cause a muscle to tear.

Groin strain is usually caused by muscles in the groin being contracted or stretched with too much force.

In practice, this often happens during sports where the leg is rotated or moved quickly upwards or sideways. Some examples of motions that could cause a groin strain include:

  • jumping
  • twisting the leg
  • forceful kicking
  • changing direction suddenly when running
  • lifting something heavy

It may also happen when muscles are being overused or are not warmed up. This is one of the reasons why it often affects athletes.

Groin strain is not always preventable, but there are some things that can help a person to avoid this type of injury.

Warming up the muscles with stretches or light exercise before sport or physical activity can help avoid damage to the body.

Keep to the same amount of exercise, rather than taking part in intense activity now and then. Professional athletes usually train throughout the year to maintain their fitness.

A person who does not exercise regularly, or who is starting to exercise for the first time, should go slowly. Pushing beyond what is comfortable or doing exercise that is too intense can cause injuries.

Grade 1 strains will take 1 to 2 weeks of rest before a person can return to exercise. Normal movement, such as walking, should be possible within a few days.

Grade 2 strains may take 3 to 6 weeks to heal fully.

Grade 3 strains happen when most or all of the muscle is torn. The muscle can take 3 to 4 months to repair completely.

A doctor or physical therapist will be able to advise on whether the muscle has fully healed. This is likely to be the case if a person:

  • can move their leg as normal
  • has regained full strength in their leg
  • is no longer feeling pain

Keeping leg muscles strong should help to prevent another groin strain in future.