The quadriceps are a group of four muscles on the front of the thigh. They are commonly injured when slowing-down (decelerating incident) during sprinting or agility. They may also be injured during kicking, either in sports or kicking out during hurdling. People will often feel a sharp pain in the front of the thigh at the time of injury. Pain is often accompanied by weakness and an inability to stretch due to discomfort. The muscle most commonly injured is called the ‘driver muscle’ (rectus femoris), which crosses over both the hip and the knee. End of pain (cessation), restoration of strength and the ability to stretch usually occurs within 7–10 days as the tear begins to heal. It is important to note that if these symptoms persist, a qualified opinion should be sought.
What causes quadriceps tears?
Scientifically proven factors that lead to quadriceps tears include a lack of strength or flexibility of the hip flexors at the front of the hip. In addition, we know that sprinting and kicking are risk factors and that the chance of this injury occurring is higher in pre-season. Therefore, you need to be well-prepared for the rigours of fast agility sports. One of the key risk factors is previous injury. As recurrence is a likely outcome, it is essential that subjects are given an appropriate strength and conditioning program to facilitate return to activity and minimise the chance of re-injury.
Although less common, the tendon within the muscle, or the tendon or bone at either end of the muscle can be damaged. This needs to be assessed and may require medical intervention. It should also be remembered that children and adolescents are less likely to have muscle tears and more likely to have bone growth plate problems that need assessment.
How do I know if I have a quadriceps tear?
If you have pain in the front of the thigh following a specific incident you are likely to have a tear. The likelihood is stronger if there is bruising, a lump or even a gap when you run your hands over the muscle. A professional, such as a physiotherapist, will carry out several more tests to confirm the diagnosis. Your physiotherapist will put the muscle on stretch to find where the pain is and how tight the muscle is. You may have already noticed that it is hard to bend your knee and pull your foot up to your buttocks. Your physiotherapist will ask you to ‘contract’ the muscle by several tests that assess your strength. Again, you may have noticed pain with tasks that use the quadriceps, such as lifting the leg, kicking out or squatting. Finally, your physiotherapist will feel the muscle to locate a sore spot and confirm the diagnosis.
How can physiotherapy help with a quadriceps tear?
Initially, your physiotherapist will give you a clear diagnosis regarding which muscle is torn and how badly. They will then give you an indication of how long it will take to return to sport or your chosen activity. A plan should then outline the following:
Initial management—this normally includes RICE
Although the muscle is already torn, the first four days are an important time to prevent further damage and compromised healing.
Strengthening—a progressive program of exercises to regain the strength of the quadriceps.
Running—a graduated program to build speed, agility, sport-specific skills and then return to training and finally sport.
Return to sport or physical activity guidelines and expectations
How effective is physiotherapy for quadriceps tears?
Physiotherapy can be very effective for the management of quadriceps tears. Your physiotherapist will have seen many patients with this presentation and can put your mind to rest regarding diagnosis and planning. Your physiotherapist is best placed to know the evidence supporting the initial management of quadriceps tears and the type of exercise prescription that is relevant to allow functional recovery and the prevention of recurrence.
What can I do at home?
The most important thing you can do as a patient after injury is protect the region from further injury until you seek a professional opinion. Avoid alcohol and anti-inflammatory medication, as local bleeding is increased and healing is slowed. Simple pain medication is adequate if required. It is also important not to stretch in the first 10 days.
Begin the RICE regime.
How long until I feel better?
In general, a quadricep tear will take around a month to get better, although variations occur. Initial rest and appropriate treatment is followed by a graduated strength and running program. If you’re competing in sport, you should train for a period of time (usually 1-2 weeks) before returning to competition.