Sprains and Strains

What are Sprains?

Sprains and strains are common injuries that can affect many body parts, including your ankles, knees, wrists, thumbs, lower back, and hamstrings. A sprain involves the stretching or tearing of ligaments. A strain involves the stretching or tearing of muscles or tendons.

How Do They Happen?

These injuries can happen very easily, often from everyday activities. You can sprain an ankle by walking on an uneven surface and twisting the joint. You can sprain a knee if you pivot wrong while playing basketball or other sports. You can sprain a thumb or wrist if you fall or by playing tennis.

Strains can affect your back and leg muscles, and they are often the result of falling, running, or lifting a heavy object. A chronic strain can occur if you do the same motion over and over, such as if you swing a golf club or row a canoe.

What are the Signs and Symptoms?

The signs of sprains and strains can be very similar. You may experience these symptoms:

  • Pain at the joint or muscle site
  • Swelling
  • Bruising
  • Difficulty using the affected joint or muscle

When you sprain a joint, you may also hear a "pop" at the time of injury. In addition, strains can bring on muscle spasms.

How Are They Diagnosed?

Often you will be able to tell that you have a sprain or strain, and you won't need professional medical attention. However, if you can't move the affected body part, if you experience numbness, or if there is redness at the injury site, see a doctor right away.

Your doctor will do a physical exam of your injury. He or she may also use an x-ray or magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) to rule out another condition, such as a fracture.

How Are They Treated?

In most cases, your sprain or strain can be treated with conservative methods. You can apply ice soon after the injury to reduce swelling. Over-the-counter pain medications will also help ease your discomfort. If the pain is severe, a brace or splint will help immobilize the joint or muscle as it heals. Often physical and occupational therapy may be used to help speed up the healing process.

If the sprain or strain caused a torn ligament or damaged muscle, you may require surgery to repair it.

What is the Prognosis?

Quite often, you will fully recover from a sprain or strain if you rest and allow the body part to heal. However, if you resume normal activities too soon, you may be more likely to reinjure the joint or muscle.