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There is always confusion in the words sprains and strains. Actually, the two words are not interchangeable.

A sprain is an injury to a ligament. A ligament is a thick, tough, fibrous tissue that connects bones together. Commonly injured ligaments are in the ankle, knee, and wrist. The ligaments can be injured by being stretched too far from their normal position. The purpose of having ligaments is to hold your skeleton together in a normal alignment — ligaments prevent abnormal movements. However, when too much force is applied to a ligament, such as in a fall, the ligaments can be stretched or torn; this injury is called a sprain.

A strain is an injury to a muscle or tendon. Muscles move your skeleton in an amazing variety of ways. When a muscle contracts it pulls on a tendon, which is in turn connected to your bone. Muscles are made to stretch, but if stretched too far, or if stretched while contracting, an injury called a strain my result. A strain can either be a stretching or tear of the muscle or tendon.

What are the symptoms of a strain or sprain?
The symptoms of strains or sprains are very close to fractures. Therefore, many people present to the ERs and Urgent Cares to distinguish between fractures, sprains or strains. The symptoms of a sprain are typically pain, swelling, and bruising of the affected joint. Symptoms will vary with the intensity of the injury; more significant ligament tears (Grade III injuries) cause an inability to use the affected joint and may lead to joint instability – sometimes this degree of injury requires surgery. Less serious injuries (Grade I and II injuries) may only cause pain with movement.

Treatment of Sprains and Strains

There is an acronym for the treatment of strains and sprains: RICE

R – Rest: Activity should be stopped, sit down. Continuing the activity will only cause further damage, swelling and pain. It is usually recommended that you rest for at least 24-48 hours from the time of injury.

I – Ice: Ice packs reduce pain and swelling and should be applied judiciously for 20-minute periods to avoid ice burn or frost bite. Packs should be removed for intervals of 40-60 minutes before being reapplied. In an acute injury, DO NOT USE HEAT – it will cause further swelling.

C – Compression: Compression should be applied lightly in the form of an elastic wrap so that it accommodates swelling. Anytime the wrap seems too tight or causes swelling below the wrap it should be loosened. If you notice skin color changes or increase in pain around the wrap, remove it.

E – Elevation: Holding the injured part above the level of the heart is standard treatment to reduce swelling.

These four treatments should be continued for the first 24-48 hours after injury. If the pain persists after this time, I recommend seeing your health care provider or orthopedist for x-rays and further treatment.

You can also take 600mg of ibuprofen twice a day for the first 72 hours after injury. This will help with pain and swelling.

Prevention of Sprains and Strains

  • The #1 Most Important Prevention: Warm up and stretch before playing a sport or exercising
  • Avoid exercising or playing sports when tired or in pain.
  • Eat a well-balanced diet to keep muscles strong.
  • Maintain a healthy weight.
  • Try to avoid falling (for example, put sand or salt on icy spots on your front steps or sidewalks).
  • Wear shoes that fit well.
  • Get new shoes if the heel wears down on one side.
  • Exercise every day.
  • Be in proper physical condition to play a sport.
  • Wear protective equipment when playing.
  • Run on flat surfaces.

Now, get out there and get moving!!!