Although sprains and strains are common injuries that share similar symptoms and treatment, these two types of injuries aren't the same. They affect different body parts; therefore, it's helpful to know the difference between the two.
Properties of a Sprain
A sprain occurs when you overstretch or tear one or more ligaments - bands of fibrous tissue that connect two or more bones together at a joint. Ankle sprains are a common injury and often occur when you put too much stress on your ankle joint.
Mild sprains, regardless of which joint is affected, involve only a small tear that doesn't affect joint stability. Second degree sprains cause moderate to severe pain and swelling accompanied by some joint instability.
Doctors classify a sprain as third degree when the ligament is torn completely and the joint is unstable. There may also be damage to other tissues, cartilage, or bone around the injured area.
Properties of a Strain
Strains occur when you tear or pull a muscle or tendon too far. Muscle strains are common in the lower back or hamstring muscles located at the back of your thigh. Although sudden and abrupt movements can cause strains, chronic strains are overuse injuries that occur when you play sports or perform tasks that require repetitive movements.
Like sprains, there are varying degrees of strains. Mild strains cause tenderness, whereas second degree strains are painful and limit joint range of motion. Third degree strains result in restricted movement or the inability to move the affected area. You may experience severe pain when you first get injured, but then the pain goes away.
Telltale Signs of Sprains and Strains
While symptoms vary depending on the severity of your injury, both sprains and strains generally cause some degree of pain and swelling. With a sprain, there may be bruising around the injured area. You may also feel or hear a pop in the joint when the injury occurs.
Injuries that cause severe sprains or strains can also cause fractures. Signs of a serious injury include the inability to move or bear weight on the injured joint. You may also experience numbness in the area or significant pain when you stand or walk more than a few steps.
Risk Factors for Sprains and Strains
Poor conditioning is a risk factor that can lead to both sprains and strains. Physical conditioning gives you more strength, delays fatigue during vigorous physical activity, decreases the severity of injury, and allows for faster recovery.
Not warming up before exercise, athletic training, or playing a sport can also lead to sprain or strain injuries. Warm-up exercises, such as stretching and strengthening exercises, help prevent injury by increasing joint range of motion and making muscles more flexible.
Fatigue is another risk factor. Tired and weak muscles increase the chance of injury when you stress a joint or overextend a muscle. When muscles are tired, they provide less support for the joints.
Home and Medical Treatment
The initial treatment for either a sprain or a strain is the same - rest, ice, compression, and elevation (R.I.C.E.). While you can usually treat mild sprains and strains at home, a more severe injury may require medical treatment.
Your doctor may need to take an X-ray to make certain that your symptoms are due to a sprain and not a broken bone. In cases of a severe sprain or strain, immobilizing the area with a brace or splint may be necessary. Sometimes a severely torn ligament requires surgery in the form of arthroscopy or reconstruction to repair it.
As you recover from your injury, your doctor may refer you to a physical therapist who will advise you on a rehabilitation program. Physical therapy focuses on exercises to strengthen and condition the muscles surrounding the injured joint, which also helps minimize the risk of future sprains or strains.
If you have a sprain, strain, or other injury that won't heal, contact Orthopaedic & Sports Specialists PC to find out what treatments are available to help your recovery.