The quadriceps, or “quads,” are a group of four muscles in the thigh. A pulled quad can cause mild to severe pain. Initial treatment involves reducing swelling, and a person may need continuing rest or physical therapy to recover fully.
The quads’ primary purpose is to straighten the knee. Athletes and other physically active people are most likely to pull a muscle in this group.
Most people recover after applying ice and resting. However, some require further treatment, depending on the severity of the injury.
The most common symptoms include:
- loss of strength
- loss of ability to move
Some people can feel the injury as it occurs, while others only feel the effects.
An athlete who habitually makes sudden, forceful leg movements, especially when fatigued, is most likely to pull a quad.
According to research from 2010, the most common causes of a strain or a pull in the quads include:
- playing sports, such as soccer, football, and rugby, which involve forceful contractions of the quads
- excessively extending or stretching the muscle group
- overall muscle fatigue
The researcher also described the grading system for pulled quadriceps:
- Grade 1: mild pain, limited loss of strength, and no muscle defects
- Grade 2: moderate pain, moderate loss of strength, and possibly a noticeable muscle defect
- Grade 3: severe pain, typically with a complete loss of strength and a noticeable muscle defect
A person should stop any activity if they feel a pulling sensation followed by pain when moving the leg. Seek medical attention as soon as possible.
For athletes, this may involve letting a coach know. The coach should examine the injury and begin treatment.
The area around the quads will likely swell when the injury first occurs. The American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons recommends using the RICE method for initial treatment of muscle strains in the thigh.
The RICE method stands for:
- R — Rest: Avoid walking, running, squats, and any activity that requires the leg to do too much work.
- I — Ice: To prevent further swelling, wrap ice packs or bags of frozen vegetables in towels and apply them to the affected area.
- C — Compression: Apply pressure to the area to keep swelling down.
- E — Elevation: Elevate the leg above the level of the heart to encourage the excess blood to drain from the swollen area.
Using the RICE method and resting will help the quad to recover fully.
Promoting muscle recovery
Some light stretches can encourage recovery, and a person may benefit from applying mild heat to the area before stretching.
Stretching should only last for a few minutes, and be careful not to stretch very hard or far.
Over-the-counter medications, such as ibuprofen, can help ease pain and swelling.
A doctor may also recommend physical therapy to restore the range of motion.
Ultimately, the best treatment for a pulled quad is time. The body will repair itself over the course of a few weeks.
Recovery times can vary, depending on the extent of the injury.
A person with a grade 1 injury will likely recover within 1–2 weeks if they rest the muscle as much as possible.
It can take longer to recover from a grade 2 or 3 strain, in some cases over 1 month.
When the pain has disappeared, and the strength of the muscle has returned, a person can go back to their normal activities.
Most people do not need to worry about pulling their quadriceps. Those most at risk tend to be athletes engaged in intense physical activities.
Some risk factors include:
- muscle fatigue
- an imbalance between the strengths of the quads and the hamstrings
- poor conditioning, or trying to do too much too soon
- muscle tightness
Taking the following precautions can help:
- fully warming up before engaging in the demanding activity
- conditioning the muscles with regular exercise
- cooling down following exercise
- allowing the muscle to heal completely before returning to the activity
A person may not need to see a doctor for a mild quad pull. However, if a person has sustained the injury while playing a team sport, it may be a good idea to see a doctor. The doctor can recommend ways to speed the recovery.
Seek medical attention for a quad pull if the injury:
- causes extreme pain or loss of movement
- seems to worsen
- does not improve over time
A doctor will examine the leg and thigh. They may then use imaging to check the muscle for tears or additional damage.
The doctor can recommend medications to ease the pain and swelling. They may also suggest physical therapy.
Finally, a doctor may advise about returning to daily activities and write an excusal letter, if necessary.
For most people, a pulled quad would be an unusual injury. Those most at risk are athletes and others who participate in physically demanding activities.
It is essential to allow the body to heal by resting the muscles as much as possible. A person should also use the RICE method to reduce swelling.
Many people can return to their regular activities within a few weeks of the injury.