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Sprains and strains

Sprains and strains are common injuries that share similar signs and symptoms, but involve different parts of your body.

A sprain is a stretching or tearing of ligaments — the tough bands of fibrous tissue that connect two bones together in your joints. The most common location for a sprain is in your ankle.

A strain is a stretching or tearing of muscle or tendon. A tendon is a fibrous cord of tissue that connects muscles to bones. Strains often occur in the lower back and in the hamstring muscle in the back of your thigh.

Initial treatment for both sprains and strains includes rest, ice, compression and elevation. Mild sprains and strains can be successfully treated at home. Severe sprains and strains sometimes require surgery to repair torn ligaments, muscles or tendons.

Symptoms Causes Risk factors Prevention

Signs and symptoms will vary, depending on the severity of the injury.

Sprains

  • Pain
  • Swelling
  • Bruising
  • Limited ability to move the affected joint
  • At the time of injury, you may hear or feel a "pop" in your joint

Strains

  • Pain
  • Swelling
  • Muscle spasms
  • Limited ability to move the affected muscle

When to see a doctor

Mild sprains and strains can be treated at home. But you should see a doctor if you:

  • Can't walk more than four steps without significant pain
  • Can't move the affected joint
  • Have numbness in any part of the injured area

Sprains

A sprain occurs when you overextend or tear a ligament while severely stressing a joint. Sprains often occur in the following circumstances:

  • Ankle — Walking or exercising on an uneven surface
  • Knee — Pivoting during an athletic activity
  • Wrist — Landing on an outstretched hand during a fall
  • Thumb — Skiing injury or overextension when playing racquet sports, such as tennis

Strains

There are two types of strains: acute and chronic. An acute strain occurs when a muscle becomes strained or pulled — or may even tear — when it stretches unusually far or abruptly. Acute strains often occur in the following ways:

  • Slipping on ice
  • Running, jumping or throwing
  • Lifting a heavy object or lifting in an awkward position

A chronic strain results from prolonged, repetitive movement of a muscle. This may occur on the job or during sports, such as:

  • Gymnastics
  • Tennis
  • Rowing
  • Golf

Factors contributing to sprains and strains include:

  • Poor conditioning. Lack of conditioning can leave your muscles weak and more likely to sustain injury.
  • Fatigue. Tired muscles are less likely to provide good support for your joints. When you're tired, you're also more likely to succumb to forces that could stress a joint or overextend a muscle.
  • Improper warm-up. Properly warming up before vigorous physical activity loosens your muscles and increases joint range of motion, making the muscles less tight and less prone to trauma and tears.
  • Environmental conditions. Slippery or uneven surfaces can make you more prone to injury.
  • Poor equipment. Ill-fitting or poorly maintained footwear or other sporting equipment can contribute to your risk of a sprain or strain.

Regular stretching and strengthening exercises for your sport, fitness or work activity, as part of an overall physical conditioning program, can help to minimize your risk of sprains and strains. Try to be in shape to play your sport; don't play your sport to get in shape. If you have a physically demanding occupation, regular conditioning can help prevent injuries.

You can protect your joints in the long term by working to strengthen and condition the muscles around the joint that has been injured. The best brace you can give yourself is your own "muscle brace." Ask your doctor about appropriate conditioning and stability exercises. Also, use footwear that offers support and protection.

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