Sprains and strains are common injuries in active individuals and athletes. Hikers can lose their footing on a trail and sprain their ankle, a backyard
soccer game can end in a strained calf, landscaping can be derailed by picking up a bag of mulch incorrectly. Common activities can cause these injuries
and basic preparation can help prevent them.
So what's the difference?
A sprain occurs when a ligament is stretched, torn, or otherwise forced beyond its normal range of motion. Ligaments connect bones and
help support and stabilize joints. When a hiker steps off a rock, for example, and twists his ankle, the ligaments in the ankle are overstretched. In
extreme cases the ligament can tear.
A strain occurs when a muscle or tendon is injured, generally due to overuse or repetitive motion. Tendons connect muscle to bone and can
be fatigued by running, walking, carrying heavy items, or by a sudden stretch or contraction. Daniel Aaron, MD explains, “Chronic strains due to repetitive
motion can result in tendinitis, or inflammation of a tendon. We see shoulder tendinitis commonly with pitchers in baseball and elbows of tennis players.”
What are the signs and symptoms?
A sure sign of a sprain is the feeling of a tear or pop in the joint. Pain, bruising, swelling and inflammation are common to sprains. The
injury can be incapacitating and pain can be severe if a ligament separates from the bone. Less severe cases result in a partial tear, with mild pain,
joint instability and swelling. A mild case produces a dull ache.
A strain traditionally produces pain, muscle weakness, swelling and cramping. Severe ruptures of the tendon can result in extreme pain and
immobilization. Less severe cases result in some loss of muscle function and soreness. A mild strain causes uncomfortable movement.
Who's at risk?
Sprains and strains are common injuries, with a wide range of causes made possible by underlying conditions. Says Aaron, “Everyone is at risk for sprains
or strains.” Particular risk factors include: vigorous athletic or fitness activities; physically strenuous jobs; poor physical condition; and obesity.
Most sprains and strains can be treated by using the RICE method: Rest the injured area, using a sling for an arm injury or crutches for a
leg injury; Ice the area to calm inflammation; Compress the area using an elastic bandage or sleeve (not tightly) to
minimize swelling and promote blood flow; and Elevate the injured area above the heart. Pain and inflammation can be combated using
over-the-counter ibuprofen or aspirin.
See a physician if the case is severe or causes intense pain. Seek immediate medical attention if there is a popping sound, numbness, significant swelling,
pain or fever, or the limb buckles or cannot be moved. “In severe cases, a strain or sprain can require surgery,” says Aaron, “Even in milder cases, we
often recommend a rehabilitation plan to give patients the best chance to return to their normal lifestyles.”