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.
Muscles contract and relax (almost like rubber bands) to help your body move. So a strain is exactly what it sounds like: a muscle 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.
Even though both can hurt a lot, strains are not as serious as sprains. Because a strain is pain in the muscle, it may start to hurt immediately or several hours later. The area will be tender and swollen and might also appear bruised.
A sprain 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.
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.
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.
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.
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:
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 strain takes about 1 week to heal. A bad sprain may take longer — as long as 3 to 4 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: Alfred Atanda Jr., MD
Date reviewed: August 2010
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