The quadriceps are a group of muscles on the front of the upper thigh. They work with the hamstrings to bend and extend the leg. For athletes in high-speed sports (such as football, soccer, track and field, and basketball), having powerful and strong quadriceps is required. A strain occurs when an athlete places the quads under more force than they can withstand. Strains are graded on a 1, 2, 3 scale depending on severity. Symptoms of a grade 1 strain are mild discomfort in the thigh, difficulty walking or running, and a twinge feeling. A grade 2 strain is more severe. There may be a sudden sharp pain making it difficult to continue to play. It will be extremely difficult to walk and there may be mild bruising or swelling. Grade 3 is the most severe strain. There will be a sudden, severe pain in the thigh, and you will be unable to walk without crutches. Bad swelling and bruising will appear immediately.
Quad strains happen most often when an athlete is attempting to accelerate. When muscles are fatigued or overused, or not sufficiently stretched or warmed up before a workout, they are much more susceptible to strain. When an athlete attempts to accelerate very quickly, quads may be placed under more force than they can withstand, and tendons and muscle fibres begin to tear away from the bone. An imbalance between strong hamstrings and weak quads can also lead to an injury. This condition is common among runners. A quad strain can also be caused by a direct blow, such as being checked in hockey or blocked or tackled in football. Athletes who play basketball, rugby, football, soccer, or track and field are much more susceptible to quad strains.
A mild quad strain can be effectively managed with the RICE model. The first step is rest. Stop playing your sport and take some time off to heal. You should also apply an ice pack for about 20 minutes every few hours for the first 2 days after the injury to help minimize swelling and pain. Make sure the ice pack is wrapped in a thin towel to avoid causing skin damage. You also want to wrap an elastic bandage on your injured thigh. If you are not exactly sure how to properly wrap your thigh, have a professional do it (a doctor or trainer). Keep your injured thigh elevated above the level of your heart. Elevating your limb and keeping it compressed with bandaging can help reduce swelling, and over-the-counter medication can help reduce pain or discomfort. For moderate and severe strains, you need to consult with your doctor for a proper diagnosis and course of treatment. You will probably be required to use crutches for a period of time, and you may even need surgery if the muscle is severely torn.
Mild quad strains typically heal within 10 days. Moderate strains take around a month to heal. Severe strains usually need at least 3 months, and maybe more if surgery is required. Before returning to play, make sure you are able to go through each movement required in your sport without experiencing any pain or discomfort. If part of your comeback program is running, avoid running at full speed, and try not to suddenly stop until you have regained full range of motion and strength. Cross-train in sports or exercises that do not place heavy stress on the quads, such as upper body strength training, lap swimming, hitting off a tee (if you play baseball) and so on. Apply heat on the injured area before working out, and ice packs immediately following. To prevent a quad strain, stop exercising if you feel tightness, and avoid increasing the duration, frequency, and intensity of exercise more than 10% a week. Make sure you properly stretch and warm-up before all athletic activities. Sports Injury Clinic has more information about quad strains.