Sprains and strains are very common injuries and affect individuals of all ages. They are often confused, but they are two different conditions:
A sprain is the stretching or tearing of the tendon (tendon-fibrous portion that connects muscle to bone) or muscle.
A strain is the stretching or tearing of the ligament: the tendon-fibrous portion that connects the bones to the joints (such as the cruciate ligaments of the knee).
These two common injuries can be painful and incapacitating and sometimes require consultation with a doctor. Fortunately, home treatment options are often sufficient for complete recovery.
Here is more information about strains and sprains, including their symptoms and prevention methods.
What causes sprains and strains?
There are numerous causes and risk factors of sprains and strains. It is important to understand them to better prevent them and also to better recognize them.
Although strains and sprains target two different types of soft tissue, they are nevertheless due to very similar causes, such as:
- A fall
- The exaggerated movement of a joint (stretching too intensely, for example)
- An accident
- Repetitive movement
Everyone is subject to strains and sprains at least once in their life. However, some people are more vulnerable to it, such as:
- The elderly, due to the decrease in their balance as well as their tendon and ligament structures being more fragile.
- Overweight people: these people are more prone to injury, since their structures are subject to more pressure (both in everyday life and when injured)..
- People in poor physical condition: a lack of physical activity or a sedentary lifestyle predispose any individual to injury due to weak tissues that are unable to absorb pressure.
- High level athletes: amateur and professional athletes are completely on the other end of the spectrum from sedentary people, and are more prone to sprains and strains. The intensity of the exercise, the considerable loads, and the high risk of falling are some of the risk factors for this group of people.
What are the symptoms of sprains and strains?
It's no surprise that both sprains and strains have similar symptoms.
Usually, pain is experienced immediately following the trauma (a sprain or strain of the ankle is an example of a common trauma). Soon after, there is localized swelling. More rarely, a slight redness or even a bruise may be observed.
In the majority of cases, a strain or sprain are mild and can simply be treated at home.
If movement becomes impossible without acute pain, get medical consultation. A doctor's opinion is also relevant if the swelling and redness persists or gets worse a few days after the trauma.
How to treat them yourself
As mentioned above, sprains and strains (for the most part) can be easily treated at home. When the symptoms subside and a clear recovery is observed, then the home treatment was adequate and appropriate.
In addition, it is advisable to apply cold locally to the wound during the first 48 hours. This helps decrease the swelling and also acts as a natural pain reliever.
After a few days, or as soon as the inflammation subsides, heat can be applied. Moist heat, like that from a hot water bottle or heat pack, is ideal for this purpose. Be careful not to burn the skin.
For more information about applying heat or cold, see our article: Injury with pain: HOT or COLD?
How to prevent sprains and strains
Although sometimes unavoidable, in many cases sprains and strains can still be prevented. Take the example of an athlete who, by warming up properly, greatly reduces the risk of injury.
Other effective prevention methods can be adopted, such as:
- Wearing footwear suitable for your activity, whether walking, playing team sports, hiking, etc.
- Using the correct posture to lift or move a heavy object
- Cease doing any activity or movement that causes local pain in a joint
- Follow the advice of your employer or your professional association if your work predisposes you to such injuries (movers, hairdressers, therapists, orderlies, etc.)
- Warm up properly before participating in moderate or intense physical activity
When should you consult a doctor?
While it is true that most sprains and strain rarely need medical attention, some cases require medical advice. Here are some signs that should prompt you to go to a clinic:
- Persistent swelling
- Significant bruising
- A sharp pain that gets worse when touched and prevents movement
- An abnormal appearance on the surface of the skin (irregular or bumpy)
- Sustained local or peripheral numbness