How are sprains and strains different?
Both strains and sprains are caused by stretching or tearing of the tissue, but with strains the injured tissue is a muscle or tendon, whereas with sprains, the tissue is a ligament.
Strains are usually caused by putting stress on weak or tight or weak muscles. This could be from a new or abnormally intense work out, not warming up before exercising, suddenly changing directions or accelerating (like in sprinting) or lifting a heavy object. Jumping or overstretching might also cause a strain.
Strains can also be caused by overuse. Tennis elbow, for example, is a common strain in the hand and forearm resulting from prolonged repetitive movement involving gripping or extending the wrist, such as when playing tennis or badminton. Other tendons that are prone to strains include those in your shoulder, ankle, foot and knee. Strains to the adductor (inner thigh) muscles are also common sports injuries, especially in soccer and hockey.
Sprains are caused by stretching, twisting and sometimes tearing of ligaments. Ankle sprains are the most frequent injury sustained in sports, and are particularly prevalent in basketball, field sports, climbing and volleyball. Getting an ankle sprain can put you at risk for recurrent sprains, since the ligament can become weakened. Wrist sprains are also common, either due to repetitive movements or most commonly, falling on an outstretched hand.
How severe is my sprain?
The severity of a sprain is graded from mild to severe, depending on how much tissue damage there is:
Mild: The ligaments are only slightly stretched or torn. Pain is often mild, and there is generally little or no swelling. You should be able to put weight on and move the affected joint in a first-degree sprain, because the joint is still stable.
Moderate: The ligaments have been stretched and partially torn. These injuries are usually accompanied by swelling and bruising and you may have difficulty using the affected joint or muscle.
Severe: The ligament is completely torn. Not surprisingly, these injuries usually cause severe pain and extensive swelling and bruising, and you will be unable to use the affected body part. These types of sprains are serious and require long and intense rehabilitation.
If you are unsure about the severity of your injury, or are concerned for any reason, seek advice from your doctor.
Preventing sprains and strains
- Improve your general strength and fitness to protect your joints
- Always do a gradual warm up or stretch before exercising
- Start exercise therapy as soon as your initial injury heals to help prevent recurring injuries
- Use tapes or braces to support your muscles and help prevent injuries
- Wear the right shoes to protect your ankles
- Avoid or take breaks from repetitive movements
- Learn proper ways to lift heavy items
- Ensure you have an ergonomic work environment
What should I do if I have a strain or sprain?
RICE: RICE stands for rest, ice, compression and elevation. It’s the first thing to do for any muscle injury. Stop your activity straight away and try not to move the injured area, then put an ice pack on the affected area for 15-20 minutes every 1-2 hours for up to 48 hours. Bandage the site firmly to apply compression – this helps to reduce pain, bleeding and swelling. If possible, keep the injured area elevated to above the level of your heart, by resting it on a chair or pillow. This also helps to reduce swelling.
Pain relievers: Over-the-counter pain relievers such as Nurofen can help with the pain after a strain or sprain. Pain relievers like Nurofen are anti-inflammatories, so they can reduce inflammation too. As well as tablets, Nurofen is also available as a medicated patch called Nurofen Duralast, which is applied directly to your strain or sprain to provide targeted relief for up to 24 hours.
See your doctor: It’s a good idea to get a strain or sprain checked out, especially if the swelling and pain haven’t eased in the first two days. Your doctor can give you a precise diagnosis, recommend functional support items (e.g. crutches or braces) and help create an exercise rehabilitation plan to facilitate a full recovery.