Sprains and Strains

Written by Amber Erickson Gabbey | Published on September 3, 2013
Medically Reviewed by George Krucik, MD, MBA on September 3, 2013

What Are Sprains and Strains?

Sprains and strains are injuries to the body, often resulting from physical activity. These injuries are common and can range from minor to severe, depending on the incident. Most sprains and strains are minor and don’t require medical attention.

Sprains occur at joints and affect ligaments, which connect bone to bone. Strains affect muscles or tendons, which connect muscle to bone. They most often occur at the calf, thigh, or groin.

What Causes Sprains and Strains?

Sprains occur when a joint is twisted while bearing some weight. Many people are familiar with rolling, twisting, or spraining an ankle. This is often caused by stepping or falling off of a higher platform, like a sidewalk. Sprains can also occur at the knee from pivoting, at the wrist from falls, and from accidents or collisions. Sprains can occur at any joint and result in the ligaments becoming stretched. A sprain can range from mild to severe. In severe cases, the ligament can actually rupture, causing tissue damage and complete instability of the joint.

Strains are caused when too much force is placed on a muscle. They often occur during weight-bearing activities that stretch the muscle. Repetitive motions, overusing a muscle, or working beyond your physical ability may cause a strain. Strains are also known as pulled muscles and can range from mild, with minimal tear, to severe, with significant tearing. Acute strains happen after a one-time incident. Chronic strains are caused by repetitive activity.

Risk Factors of Sprains and Strains

You are more at risk for sprains and strains if you:

  • have a current or prior injury to the muscles or joints
  • have limited flexibility
  • engage in physical activity beyond your ability
  • fail to properly warm up before strenuous physical activity 

Symptoms of Sprains and Strains

Sprains are usually noticeable when they occur. But sometimes a minor sprain will happen without your noticing. The primary symptoms of sprains include limited mobility, inflammation, pain, swelling, and bruising. You might hear a popping noise at the time of injury.

Strains are often accompanied by pain, cramping, swelling, muscle spasms, and stiffness or soreness in the muscle. As with sprains, you may be aware of the exact movement or activity that created the strain, or you may notice symptoms only later.

Diagnosing Sprains and Strains

To diagnose sprains and strains, your doctor will look at the impacted area and ask questions about the injury or accident. Your doctor might take an X-ray of the area to ensure that there are no broken or chipped bones. Usually, you will be sent home with an at-home treatment and a care plan.

Treating Sprains and Strains

For these types of injuries, you will need to follow the RICE treatment (rest, ice, compression, and elevation). Over-the-counter pain medication can also be used to alleviate pain and reduce inflammation. Topical creams and gels may also help decrease pain and facilitate healing. For severe injuries, you might be required to wrap the joint or wear a soft cast. A doctor may recommend physical therapy to rehabilitate and strengthen the affected area.

Other treatment options for sprains and strains include massage, chiropractic treatment, and acupuncture. In rare cases, surgery may be required to repair damaged tissues.

Both sprains and strains can limit physical ability until they heal. Be sure to use caution and protect your body, especially the joints, until you are fully healed. Once the sprain or strain is healed, return to physical activity carefully. Even though you feel better, the tissues might not be completely healed or as stable as they once were. Consider wrapping or wearing a brace when you resume activity, in order to protect the injured area.

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