Sprains and Strains: Symptoms, Treatment, & Recovery
A sprain is where a ligament, which is a band of tissue that connects bones together for stability, is torn or overstretched. A strain is where a tendon, which connects muscles to the bone for movement purposes, is torn or overstretched. This tearing or overstretching of ligaments (sprains) and tendons (strains) is classified into 3 grades:
Grade I (mild – only some fibers are torn) – you may not experience much swelling, the affected area will still feel stable, and your range of motion and strength are only slightly impacted
Grade 2 (moderate – a moderate amount of fibers are torn) – the swelling will be more visibly apparent; and strength, stability and range of motion will be noticeably impacted
Grade 3 (severe – a complete rupture of the tendon or ligament) – swelling will be severe; loss of most stability; and range of motion, and strength may be nearly completely lost.
What Causes Sprains and Strains?
Sprains and strains are a result of awkward movement or overuse that put stress on ligaments and tendons. Activities such as sports, working out, improper lifting techniques, and accidents such as falls can all result in sprains or strains.
Potential Causes of Sprains or Strains
- Working out
- Overuse or overexertion
- Sporting activities
- Lifting with poor form
- Repetitive activities
- Falls – putting force on the wrist to break your fall
- Changing direction on uneven surfaces – putting force on the ankle
- Pivoting – putting force on the knee as you twist
- Landing awkwardly from a jump
Sprains and Strains Risk Factors
Sprains and Strains can result from everyday activities, sports, or accidents. Using footwear that does not fit or give you proper support or traction could increase your risk of suffering a sprain or strain. If you are tired and continue to perform an activity, your form may suffer, leaving you at higher risk for a sprain or strain. If you are walking, running, or playing sports on an uneven or slippery surface, you could increase your chances of suffering a sprain or strain.
Symptoms of Sprains and Strains
Symptoms of sprains and strains include:
- Difficulty moving the affected area
How are Sprains or Strains Diagnosed?
After listening to your symptoms, your doctor will perform a physical exam to test your range of motion, strength, and stability. If your doctor suspects a mild strain or sprain, you may be able to recover with little to no medical intervention. If your doctor suspects a moderate or severe strain or sprain, or an accompanying fracture, they may order imaging tests such as X-rays in order to determine the extent of your injuries and find out if you have a fracture. In some cases, an MRI or ultrasound could be necessary in order to give the doctor a complete view of the soft tissue injuries and determine the course of action for potential surgery.
Treatment for Sprains and Strains
Sprains and Strains may be treated surgically or non-surgically. Conservative treatment is usually the first course of action even with complete tears of the tendon or ligament. Even grade 3 sprains or strains may heal without surgery.
Conservative, nonsurgical treatment is the first thing your doctor will recommend if you have suffered a strain or sprain. Resting, icing, compressing, and elevating (the RICE method) the affected area will help you recover. Physical therapy is usually recommended in order to prevent further sprains or strains. For grade 3 sprains or strains, your doctor may put you in a boot or cast to immobilize the area in order to encourage healing, after which you will go through physical therapy to regain strength, stability, and range of motion.
In rare cases, surgery may be required to treat a grade 3 sprain or strain. The amount of recovery time away from sports or activities is similar whether a grade 3 sprain is treated surgically or not, which is why doctors usually recommend conservative treatment options unless surgery is absolutely necessary.
Sprains and Strains Recovery Time
Recovery from sprains and strains varies depending on the grade of the sprain and whether or not there are any other injuries present. A grade 1 sprain or strain could take just a couple of weeks to heal, whereas a grade 3 sprain or strain could take up to six months to heal.
How Can I Prevent Sprains and Strains?
You may be able to prevent strains or sprains by: engaging in a proper warm-up prior to activities such as sports or working out; electing to rest while suffering from other injuries or fatigue instead of working out or participating in sport; wearing proper equipment like braces and footwear to help with balance and stability; and maintaining a healthy diet and workout regimen to help keep you strong.
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