Of all the orthopedic injuries an athletic or active individual is likely to sustain, the two most common are sprains and strains. At first glance, there doesn’t seem to be much difference between the two. Not only are the terms often used interchangeably, they both involve the overstretching or tearing of soft tissue around or within a joint; they also share similar symptoms including pain, swelling, and limited flexibility and range of motion. So, how would you know the difference between a sprain and a strain if it happened to you? Here some guidelines that can help you differentiate between sprains and strains.
A sprain occurs when a ligament – the tissue that connects to bones in a joint – is overstretched or torn; this explains why sprains most often seem to occur in the ankle joint. With a sprain, you might see bruising around the affected joint and can certainly expect pain and weakness in the injured area.
On the other hand, a strain occurs when a muscle or tendon – the fibrous cords of tissue that connect your bones to muscles – is overstretched or torn. Strains are most likely to occur in the lower back or the hamstring muscle located in the back of your thigh and are known to create spasms in the affected muscle.
Those who exercise vigorously or participate in sports are naturally susceptible to sprains and strains. However, you’re also at greater risk of straining a muscle or spraining your knee, ankle, wrist or thumb joint if your work involves prolonged repetitive motion, or frequent exertion. Slips and falls too often result in sprains, while you can often expect a strain when lifting something heavy.
Treating and preventing sprains and strains
The treatment for sprains and strains varies, depending on the severity and location of the injury. If it’s a mild sprain or strain, all that’s required is the R.I.C.E. method which involves:
- Resting the affected joint while it heals,
- Icing to reduce swelling and inflammation,
- Compressing the joint is by wrapped with a bandage or tape to help reduce swelling and for stability, and
- Elevating the affected area to reduce.
With a mild sprain or strain, expect to resume limited activities within a matter of days. A moderate injury, however, may take a week or longer to heal. A more severe injury may require surgery to repair a damaged or torn ligament, tendon or muscle which, of course, would mean a longer recovery period and possibly some physical therapy until you regain strength and range of motion in the joint.
Sprains and strains can be prevented by taking some simple measures:
- Stretch and warm up before you work out or engage in sports. This enables your joints time to prepare for vigorous physical activity.
- Exercise regularly to keep your muscles strong and flexible.
- Be alert to slippery conditions or uneven areas that might result in a slip or fall.
- Avoid standing still too long or placing strain on muscles while performing repetitive tasks or motions.
- Use the correct exercise and sports equipment to provide joint support.
- Wear the proper equipment (particularly shoes and padding) when engaging in sports or activities.
- Learn and practice proper ways to lift heavy objects or perform repetitive tasks or work.
Don’t let sprains, strains or other injuries leave you on the sidelines or keep you from doing the activities you love. The board-certified, fellowship trained physicians at Colorado Center of Orthopaedic Excellence are experts in sports and other orthopedic injuries and will offer the most effective treatment to get you back on your feet again. If you have any questions about our orthopedic services, please call our office at (719) 623-1050. To schedule an appointment, you can call us or use our secure online appointment request form.