What to Do (and Not Do) When You Have a Sprain or a Strain

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For starters, let's clarify the difference between a strain and a sprain. A sprain occurs when a ligament (connective tissues, like elastic bands that connect the end of one bone to another and also keep your joints in place) is stretched or torn. It's common to feel a pop or tear when this happens. A strain is a stretched or torn muscle or tendon (tissue connecting muscle to the bone).

The good news is: You can sometimes treat the pain of strains and sprains at home. However, we checked in with Holly Myers, physical therapist at AdventHealth, to determine when you need to seek out a medical professional, and what you can do to strengthen your muscles in your feet, ankles and any other affected areas. Here's what she had to say:

What areas are the most at-risk for sprains and strains?
The areas of your body most vulnerable to sprains are your ankles, knees and wrists. As strains go, those areas are your shoulders, legs (think hamstrings) and back.

What's the most common cause of sprains and strains?
Sprains and strains can happen in a variety of circumstances. Everything from overuse injuries (working out/playing sports too long without proper rest) to twisting/pulling something to sustaining an unfortunate fall can lead to a sprain or strain. There's not one most common thing.

How do they occur?
A sprained ankle can occur when your foot turns inward, placing extreme tension on the ligaments of your outer ankle. A sprained knee may be the result of a sudden twist, and a sprained wrist can occur when you fall on an outstretched hand.

A strain can occur similar to a sprain, where it may be a simple stretch in your muscle or tendon; or it may be a partial or complete tear in your muscle/tendon connection.

What are the signs of a sprain?
Signs and symptoms of sprains include:
Instability of the joint
Decreased range of motion

What are the signs of a strain?
Muscle spasm
Muscle cramping
Muscle weakness
Bruising (either immediately or a few days later)

Can you care for a sprain or strain at home, or should a medical professional look at the injury?
There are things that you can do in the first 24 to 48 hours to help alleviate pain and begin the healing process. You should rest, protect the injured area, use crutches or other assistive devices as needed to help immobilize, compress (not too tight), elevate, and apply ice 15 to 20 minutes or at least every 2 hours.
If you don't see any improvement in a couple of days, you should see a medical professional to evaluate the extent of your injury.

Physical therapy can help improve pain, motion, strength and recovery time. Also, it helps get you back to your normal activities quickly and safely, and you'll learn what to do, and what not to do, so you don't reinjure yourself.

How are sprains and strains diagnosed?
Most sprains and strains are diagnosed by a physical exam. Your medical professional will exam the affected joint or muscles and take them through their normal range of motion, watching for pain, tenderness, weakness or instability.

If there's a chance you've broken a bone, an X-ray may be ordered. Magnetic resonance imaging may be needed to determine the extent of your injury because soft tissue, where sprains and strains occur, don't show up on X-rays.

How long does a sprain or strain usually take to heal?
It varies based on the severity of your injury and how much you're still using the area after the injury. Recovery ranges from a couple of days to a few weeks.

Why can't I just walk or shake it off?
In 2013, the National Athletic Trainers Association issued a position statement that ankle injuries should never be taken lightly and are too often mistreated or not treated at all. The ensuing result is an ankle prone to problems prolonged discomfort and possible re-injury, which can lead to reduced physical activity levels.

And with an injury that never gets better, whether it's your ankle or another area, chances are you may settle for a sedentary lifestyle, which can lead to further long-term health complications.

Preventing sprains and strains
Regular stretching and strengthening exercises can help minimize your risks of sprains and strains and improve motion in all areas of the body.

You can use a variety of stretching techniques to make sure you have full range of motion at all joints and lessen your chances of injuries too. And, using a foam roller can help with stretching and mobility.

Progressive strengthening exercises allow you to better stabilize yourself during activity. Balancing exercises train your body to know where it is in space and reduce your injury rate.

Other tips for preventing sprains and strains include:

  • Try to exercise or play sports when you're alert rather than when you're tired
  • Run on flat surfaces to prevent tripping
  • Wear protective gear when playing sports
  • Eat healthy to keep your muscles strong
  • Keep a healthy weight
  • Exercise daily
  • Be in the right physical condition for the sport you're playing
  • Wear the right shoes for the sport you're playing
  • Keep your home safe to prevent slips and falls

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