Sprains and strains are common sports and on-the-job injuries that share similar symptoms but involve different connective tissues.
A sprain is a stretching or tearing of ligaments in a joint. Ligaments are tough bands of fibrous tissue that connect two bones together. The most common injury is a sprained ankle. A severe sprain can result in a torn ligament.
A strain is a stretching or tearing of tendon or muscle. A tendon is a fibrous cord of tissue that connects muscles to bones. Strains often occur in the lower back and in the hamstring muscle in the back of the thigh.
Symptoms for sprains and strains vary, depending on the severity of the injury, but typically include:
- Pain, Swelling or Bruising in the Injured Area
- Muscle Spasms
- Limited Ability to Move the Affected Muscle or Joint
More severe symptoms may include:
- Hearing or Feeling a “Pop” in the Joint When The Injury Occurs
- Can’t Walk More Than Four Steps with Significant Pain
- Can’t Move the Affected Joint
- Have Pain Directly Over the Bones of an Injured Joint
- Have Numbness in Any Part of the Injured Area
If you have a sprain, your doctor may mention its “grade:”
Grade I – Stretched ligament or a very mild tear with little or no instability at the joint
Grade II – More serious but still incomplete tear with some looseness in the joint
Grade III – Completely torn or ruptured ligament with instability at the joint, very painful and cannot put weight on joint
Mild sprains and strains will heal with treatment. Before visiting Go To Ortho, you can provide initial treatment at home with Rest, Ice, Compression, and Elevation (RICE) therapy. This treatment is particularly important within the first 24 to 72 hours after injury.
As the pain and swelling go down, you can cut down on RICE therapy, and begin to use the affected area again.
You can take Ibuprofen or Aleve to help relieve pain and swelling. Follow the directions on the label for how often you should take the medication.
You should see a doctor right away if you are experiencing any of the following:
- Pain and swelling don’t start to ease within 24 to 72 hours.
- You cannot bear weight.
- Your symptoms get worse.
For more severe sprains and strains, your doctor may recommend that you have x-rays done to check whether or not you have a fracture. An MRI may also be ordered to check on your ligaments. For some sprains, such as an ankle sprain, you may need a cast and/or crutches. For more severe injuries, surgery may be required to repair torn ligaments, tendons, or muscles.
The time for recovery for a sprain or strain usually depends on the type and severity of the injury you have. Typically, though, a slight sprain or strain will take a few days to heal, while a mild to moderate sprain or strain may take 3 to 8 weeks for a full recovery. More severe injuries may take months for a full recovery, especially if surgery is involved.
In general, however, as with any period of recovery, you shouldn’t rush it to get active again, as you could reinjure the area and make it worse. Ideally, it is best to rehab your injury gradually and to follow your doctor’s advice. Your doctor or physical therapist may recommend certain exercises to help you get back to your normal routine at a safe pace. If these exercises cause the affected area to flare-up (e.g., pain, inflammation), then cut back on the frequency of your exercises and call your doctor.
Talk to your doctor at the time of treatment regarding any follow-up instructions. t often depends on the type of injury as to whether or not you need to follow up with your primary care provider. If your sprain or strain isn’t healing within 2 weeks after injury, and you are experiencing increased pain and swelling, call your doctor for re-evaluation.
While the degree of pain is usually a good indicator of how severe a sprain or strain is, that is not always the case initially. Sometimes a tear, such as an Achilles tendon tear, may not be so painful at first, but later on, the pain may be excruciating because this type of tear is more severe.