CONDITIONS

Sprain VS Strain: What’s the Difference?

The difference between a strain and sprain is the location of the injury. A sprain is an injury to a ligament, while a strain is an injury to a muscle or tendon. There are varying degrees of sprains and strains.

  • Grade I (mild). In grade I sprains/strains, the muscle, ligament, or tendon is overstretched.
  • Grade II (moderate). In grade II sprains/strains, the muscle, ligament, or tendon is partially torn.
  • Grade III (severe). In grade III sprains/strains, the muscle, ligament, or tendon is completely torn.

Sprains and strains are extremely common injuries. Nearly half a million sprain and strain cases are reported in the US each year.

What Causes Sprains And Strains

Sprains and strains are typically caused by the following:

  • Acute injury from falls, accidents, sports, etc.
  • Overuse or exhaustion of the muscle, tendon, ligament, or joint.

Risk Factors For Sprains And Strains

The following factors may increase the risk of developing a sprain or strain:

  • Participation in sports, particularly contact sports.
  • Exercising without stretching or warming up.
  • Exercising without proper rest periods for recovery.
  • Previous injuries, including sprains, strains, and fractures.

Diagnosing Sprains And Strains

The following diagnostic tests may be used by your doctor before arriving at a sprain/strain diagnosis:

  • Medical history, to assess the patient’s predispositions based on his/her prior health record, as well as record current symptoms.
  • Physical exam, to check for signs of swelling, redness, and bruising at the sight of the injury as well as rule out other possible causes of symptoms.
  • X-ray, which can help to reveal the location and severity of injury to the bone, ligament, tendon, or muscle.
  • MRI (Magnetic Resonance Imaging). In cases where an x-ray does not give sufficient information for a sprain/strain diagnosis, an MRI may be used to produce a more detailed image of the injury, especially if it involves soft tissues, such as ligaments, tendons, or muscle.

Symptoms of Sprains And Strains

The following may be signs of a sprain/strain:

  • Acute (sudden) pain
  • Pain upon moving the muscle or joint
  • Swelling
  • Bruising
  • Discoloration of the skin
  • Warmth at the site of the injury

Prognosis

The prognosis for sprains and strains depends largely on the location and the severity of the injury. If given proper treatment and rest, mild sprains and strains can heal in several days or weeks. More severe sprains/strains can take months or years to heal fully, especially if a patient returns to normal activity before the injury has entirely healed.

Living With Sprains And Strains

The following tips can help ease your pain and speed recovery of a sprain and/or strain injury:

RICE (Rest, Ice, Compression, Elevation). This method of treatment is recommended by doctors in nearly every sprain/strain case. The instruction for the RICE method is as follows:

  • Rest your injury. Limit activity and do your best to not put any weight on the injury.
  • Ice the affected area, for no longer than 20 minutes at a time. This will help to reduce swelling and manage pain.
  • Compression. Wrapping the injury with something like an ace bandage can help to decrease swelling and increase the stability of the injured area. Be careful not to wrap the injury too tightly, as it may interfere with circulation.
  • Elevation. Keep the injury above the heart as much as possible. This will help to reduce swelling.

Follow your doctor’s recommendations during treatment and recovery. Don’t return back to your normal activity level without first getting clearance. This may cause further damage.

Ease back into activity following your injury. An abrupt change in activity level can cause further injury.

Incorporate stretching and warm ups into your daily routine. Stretching each morning after you get out of bed can help keep your body limber and lessen the risk of another sprain/strain. Stretching and warming up the muscles is especially important before physical exercise.

Consider immobilization. Though braces and wraps can be bulky, don’t discount the help they can offer you in recovery. Immobilizing the injury will allow the area time to fully heal and will assure the proper alignment of the injured joint/area during recovery.

Screening

There are no screening methods in use for sprains and strains.

Prevention

Some injuries are unavoidable. However, the following tips can help make sprains/strains less likely:

  • Incorporate stretching and warm ups into your daily routine. Stretching each morning after you get out of bed can help keep your body limber and lessen the risk of another sprain/strain. Stretching and warming up the muscles is especially important before physical exercise.
  • Get support for any weak joints or muscles. Braces and wraps can be found at your local pharmacy. More advanced systems of support can be prescribed by your doctor.
  • Drink water. To keep your body and muscles hydrated. This will protect against cramping and injury.
  • Eat a balanced diet. Give the body the nutrients it needs to recover.
  • Give yourself time to rest each day and between exercises. This will help give your body and mind time to recover and heal to avoid overexertion.

Medication And Treatment

The R.I.C.E. method is the most common treatment method for grade I and II sprains and strains. The components of the RICE method are:

  • Rest your injury. Limit activity and do your best to not put any weight on the injury. More severe sprains and strains may require complete immobilization.
  • Ice the affected area, for no longer than 20 minutes at a time. This will help to reduce swelling and manage pain.
  • Compression. Wrapping the injury with something like an ace bandage can help to decrease swelling and increase the stability of the injured area. Be careful not to wrap the injury too tightly, as it may interfere with circulation.
  • Elevation. Keep the injury above the heart as much as possible. This will help to reduce swelling.

The RICE method is often combined with physical therapy to help gradually rehabilitate the injured area. Trained physical therapists will design the workout routine around each patient’s needs.

Pain medications (prescription or over-the-counter) may also help to ease pain during recovery. NSAIDs (non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs) are the most commonly used pain killers in cases of sprains and strains. Popular NSAIDs include ibuprofen and naproxen.

In rare, severe cases, surgical intervention may be required. According to the American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons, the following are the forms of surgery most often performed in association with sprains/strains:

  • Arthroscopy, in which the inside of the joint is examined with a small camera for any loose cartilage or ligament fragments impairing movement.
  • Reconstruction, in which the surgeon repairs extensive damage to the muscle, ligament, or tendon.

Complementary and Alternative Treatment

The following alternative treatments are available for the treatment of sprains and strains:

  • Acupuncture. Acupuncture is a form of traditional Chinese medicine in which small needles are inserted at points throughout the body in order to restore the bodily flow of energy. Acupuncture directed at sprains and strains may help to lessen pain and speed the recovery of muscle/tendon/ligament tissues.
  • Herbal therapy. According to the University of Maryland Medical Center, the following herbs may help to heal sprains/strains:
    • Turmeric, which helps to lessen pain and reduce inflammation.
    • White Willow, which helps to lessen pain (much alike aspirin).
    • Aesculus Hippocastanum (active ingredient in Horse Chestnut), which helps to reduce tenderness and swelling.
    • Arnica, which helps to decrease bruising/de-coloration, swelling, pain, and inflammation.

**Be sure to consult your doctor before first taking any herbal supplements to avoid and potentially harmful drug interactions.

  • Yoga incorporates stretching with physical exercise, and can help to improve balance and agility. Doing yoga three to four times a week can greatly improve your flexibility and strength. Talk to your yoga instructor to inform him or her of your injuries so that you can receive instructions for appropriate modifications.

Care Guide

If you are caring for someone with a sprain or a strain, consider the following:

  • Respect new limits in your loved one’s activity. Know that he or she may not be able to go about daily routine without modification or assistance.
  • Encourage rest. Re-enforce the doctor’s orders, and encourage your loved one to get plenty of rest.
  • Monitor symptoms. If the pain, redness, and swelling do not improve after several days, see a doctor about further treatment.
  • Be open. Talk to your loved one about your questions/concerns, and be receptive to hearing their wishes and opinions.
  • Remind your loved one to stretch and warm up before physical activity. This will help to lessen their chance of future injury.

When To Contact A Doctor

If you experience any of the symptoms of a sprain or strain, contact a doctor.

If you are undergoing treatment for a sprain or strain, contact your doctor if experience:

  • Pain that worsens or does not improve
  • Changes to the skin color
  • Changes in sensation around the site of injury

Questions For Your Doctor

To find a physical therapist, visit here.

Questions For A Doctor

If you have been diagnosed with a sprain or strain, you may want to ask your doctor the following questions:

  • What is the cause of my injury?
  • How severe is my injury?
  • What treatments are available?
  • How will my activity level be affected during treatment/recovery?
  • When will I be able to return to normal activity level?
  • Will I need to make significant changes to my daily routine?
  • What sort of rehabilitation should I pursue?
  • How long will I need to be rehabilitating?
  • What can I do to help speed my recovery?
  • What can I do to help lessen my chance of another sprain or strain?