Sprains and Strains

Young women's version of this guide
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Hurt shoulderSprains and strains are fairly common, and luckily most kids and teens heal quickly. These are fairly common injuries especially if you are an active teen who plays a sport or exercises regularly. However, can you tell the difference between a sprain and a strain, and do you know what to do if you get injured?

Sprains

What is a sprain?

A sprain happens when fiber(s) called “ligament(s)” that connect your bones to each other stretch or tear. This kind of injury occurs most often to the ankles, wrists, and knees, and can be mild, moderate, or severe.

Who is at risk for a sprain?

Sprains are a very common injury and anyone at any age can get one, but they’re usually more common among active people and athletes.

What causes a sprain?

Sprains often happen when your body accidentally moves the wrong way.

A sprain is an injury that is usually caused by:

  • Falling hard
  • Twisting (ex. ankle or knee) or moving your joint the wrong way
  • Landing the wrong way

How can I tell if I have a sprain?

You may have a sprain if you have the following signs and symptoms (where you were injured):

  • Pain
  • Swelling
  • Bruising
  • Trouble moving the joint

Strains

What is a strain?

Strains happen when a muscle or tendon (that is normally attached to the bone) pulls away from the bone. The muscle(s) or tendon(s) becomes stretched or torn. If either one has completely torn away from the bone, it will be very painful and sore when pressure is placed on it. Most strains heal in about 1 week if you receive early treatment (ice and rest to decrease the swelling).

What causes a strain?

The same kind of injuries that cause a sprain may also cause a strain but strains are often the result of overstressing one or more muscles. For example: lifting something very heavy the wrong way, over and over again.

How can I tell if I have a strain?

You may have a strain if you have the following signs and symptoms (where you got injured):

  • Pain
  • Swelling
  • Trouble moving the muscles around the joint
  • Spasm (twinges) around the injured muscle
  • Muscle weakness

How does a sprain/strain get diagnosed?

Most of the time a health care provider (HCP) can diagnose a sprain just by examining the injured area (or joint). Your HCP will check for swelling and tenderness by looking at and gently touching the area. He or she might also move your joints and limbs into different positions to help figure out exactly where the injury is. However, in some cases, it may be necessary to have diagnostic test(s) such as an x-ray, MRI, or CT scan to be sure you haven’t broken a bone or torn or damaged a ligament, muscle, or tendon.

What are the treatments for sprains and strains?

The treatments for both sprains and strains are the same. The goal is to lessen any swelling, control any pain, prevent further injury, and promote healing.

You can remember the treatment with this acronym: RICE

  • Rest – Avoid activities that cause pain, swelling or discomfort
  • *Ice– Apply ice for 15-20 minutes every 2-3 hours for the first 48 hours after the injury. You can use a cold pack, ice bag, or a plastic bag filled with ice. A package of frozen vegetables such as peas work well as a temporary ice pack. Do NOT leave an icepack on your skin for longer than 20 minutes as it can cause frostbite.
  • Compression– Use compression such as an elastic bandage, air cast or splint to lessen swelling and keep the joint supported.
  • Elevation– Raise the injured area so that it is higher than your heart. This will help to lessen and in some cases prevent swelling if done right away (after the injury). You can use pillows to help prop up an arm or leg.

Other treatments may include:

  • Over-the-counter pain medicine to decrease discomfort
  • Stopping activities that may have led to the injury and limit other activities that put a strain on the body
  • Splint/cast
  • Crutches/wheelchair (if necessary)
  • Physical therapy (in severe cases)
  • Surgery (rarely needed)

When should I call my health care provider (HCP)?

Although sprains and strains usually get better with rest and time, they can sometimes be serious so it’s important to call your HCP if you have any of the following signs/symptoms:

  • Severe pain
  • Unable to move and/or put any weight on injured body part
  • Tender to the touch
  • Numbness
  • You’ve injured the same joint before

How long will it take for my sprain or strain to heal?

The amount of time it will take for a sprain or strain to heal depends on how severe the injury is. Healing times may range from a few weeks to a few months. Be sure to take it easy while you’re healing to avoid re-injuring yourself and follow your health care provider’s recommendations.

How can I prevent sprains and strains?

There are some things you can do to lower your risk of getting an injury such as a sprain or strain:

  • Exercise every day but not when you’re tired or in pain
  • Know your limits; stop playing a sport or doing an activity when you’re tired, sick or if you become hurt
  • Warm up with stretching exercises BEFORE you play a sport
  • Wear athletic shoes that fit well and are in good shape and replace them when they are worn out
  • Always wear protective safety gear when playing sports such as: soccer, field hockey, biking, etc.
  • Avoid running on wet or bumpy ground
  • Eat food from all the food groups, and stay active (to keep your muscles healthy)