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Bones, Muscles & Joints

Strains and Sprains

If you’re an active person, you’ll probably get a sprain or a strain at some point. They’re common injuries, especially for people who play hard or are into sports. Let’s find out more about them.

What Are Strains and Sprains?

Muscles contract and relax (almost like rubber bands) to help your body move. So a strain is exactly what it sounds like: a muscle or tendon (tissue that attaches muscle to bone) that has been stretched too far. It’s common for people to strain the muscles in their backs, necks, or legs.

Bones meet at joints, such as elbows, knees, or shoulders. That’s where your body bends and rotates. Strong, elastic bands of tissue called ligaments hold bones together in the joints. A sprain happens when those ligaments have been overstretched (mild sprain) or torn (severe sprain). Ankles, wrists, and knees sprain easily.

How Is a Strain Different From a Sprain?

A strain, which is an injury of the muscle or tendon, may start to hurt immediately or several hours later. The area will be tender and swollen and might also appear bruised. Someone with a strain may notice weakness or muscle spasms in the area.

A sprain, which is an injury of a ligament, will probably start to hurt right away. Usually the injury will swell and look bruised, it may be hard to walk or move the injured part, and you might even think you have broken a bone.

How Does a Strain or Sprain Happen?

Strains often happen when you put a lot of pressure on a muscle or you push it too far, such as when lifting a heavy object. Strains may be more likely to happen if you haven’t warmed up first to get blood circulating to the muscles. They’re also common for someone returning to a sport after the off-season. That first time playing softball after a long winter off might lead to a strained calf or thigh muscle.

Sprains are caused by injuries, such as twisting your ankle. This kind of injury is common in sports, but can also happen any time you trip or fall.

What if I Get a Strain or Sprain?

If you get a strain or sprain, try not to use the part of your body that’s hurt. That means not walking on a hurt ankle or using a hurt arm. It can be hard to tell the difference between a sprain and a broken bone, so it’s often a good idea to see a doctor. In some cases, you might need to go to the emergency department.

What Will the Doctor Do?

First, a doctor will look at your injury. He or she may gently touch the area, check the color, feel if your skin is warm or cold, and look for swelling and tenderness. If you hurt your ankle, your doctor might ask to see if you can stand on it. In some cases, the doctor will order an X-ray to tell if the bone is broken.

  • If you have a sprain, the doctor will probably have you wear a splint or temporary cast to support and protect the injured area. He or she may wrap the injury with an elastic bandage to reduce swelling and provide extra support. Also, the doctor will probably tell you to take some pain medication.
  • If you have a strain, the doctor will probably tell you to rest the injury and maybe take some pain medication.

What Happens Next?

It’s very important to follow your doctor’s instructions. When you get home, think RICE as a way to remember how to take care of your injury:

  • Rest (the injured part of the body)
  • Ice (apply cold packs to the injury to help bring down swelling)
  • Compression (wrap the injury firmly with an elastic compression bandage or splint to prevent and decrease swelling)
  • Elevation (raise the injured part so it’s higher than your heart, also to prevent swelling)

ice pack on ankle

If the swelling has gone down after 24 hours, it’s OK to use warm compresses or a heating pad to soothe aching muscles. Take any pain medications that have been ordered by your doctor.

A mild strain takes about one week to heal, but a more severe one can take several weeks. A sprain may also take longer — as long as 4 to 6 weeks to heal or sometimes even longer. While your strain or sprain heals, take it easy and don’t do anything that could cause another injury.

If you’ve visited the doctor for your injury, you might have a follow-up visit to make sure everything is healing just right. When you’re all healed, your doctor will give you the green light to return to your favorite activities.

Reviewed by: Larissa Hirsch, MD
Date reviewed: March 2014