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Strains and Sprains

Understanding sprains & strains.

  • Did you slip and fall on the ice?
  • Have you pulled a muscle playing sports?
  • Is your back sore from shoveling snow or doing heavy work?
  • Do you have soreness in your elbow from pitching or playing tennis?

If so, you could have a sprain or strain.

Sprains and strains can be mild and treatable at home—or severe enough to require immediate medical attention.

Understanding sprains & strains.

What is a sprain?

A sprain happens when you overstretch or tear a ligament—the tissue that connects one bone to another. You might feel a tear or “pop” in the joint at the moment when you sprain it.

A sprain causes:

  • Pain
  • Bruising
  • Swelling
  • Inflammation

A sprain can be mild, moderate or severe:

  • A mild sprain stretches the ligament, but doesn’t loosen the joint.
  • A moderate sprain partially tears the ligament and makes the joint swollen and unstable.
  • A severe sprain tears a ligament completely, or separates it from the bone. There is extreme pain at the moment this injury happens.

What is a strain?

Ever “pull” a muscle? In medical terms, a pulled muscle is known as a strain—a stretching or tearing of a muscle or tendon, the fibrous tissue that connects muscle to bone.

A strain causes:

  • Pain
  • Swelling
  • Muscle spasms
  • Muscle weakness

A strain can be mild, moderate or severe:

  • A mild strain lightly pulls or stretches the muscle or tendon.
  • A moderate strain causes some loss of muscle function, as the muscle or tendon is overstretched and slightly torn.
  • A severe strain can be incapacitating as the muscle and/or tendon is partially or completely ruptured.

When should you seek medical attention for a sprain or strain?

If you aren’t sure how serious your injury is or how to care for it, you should see a doctor. The National Institutes of Health also recommends that you seek medical attention if:

  • You’re in a lot of pain and can’t put any weight on your injured joint.
  • The injured joint is very tender to the touch.
  • You can’t move your injured joint.
  • You can’t walk more than a few steps without a lot of pain.
  • Any part of the injured area is numb.
  • Your arm or leg buckles or gives way when you try to use the injured joint.
  • You notice redness or red streaks spreading out from your injury.
  • There is pain, swelling or redness over a body part of your foot.
  • You re-injure an area that’s been injured several times before.
  • The injured area looks crooked or has lumps and bumps, aside from swelling, that you don’t see on the uninjured joint.

Dr. Daniel Zanotti answers questions about sprains and strains

Are sprains and strains common among athletes?

“Yes. We see sprains and strains in athletes of all ages.

  • Baby Boomers who stay active
  • Middle-age weekend warriors
  • Younger athletes playing competitive sports

“Once you have had sprains and strains, you’re more likely to get them again.”

Is a strain always the result of a one-time injury?

“Not always. A strain can be acute or chronic:

  • An acute strain is a result from a single injury, when a direct body blow overstretches or excessively contracts a muscle.
  • A chronic strain is due to overuse of muscles and tendons, typically caused by prolonged or repetitive movement. You are at higher risk for strains if you don’t take adequate rest breaks during intensive training.”

Can a sprain or strain get worse?

“Yes. Often, sprains and strains start as just a sore area, but progress to something more debilitating. These can require imaging, such as X-rays or MRIs, to help diagnose. At the Center for Orthopedics, we’re equipped to handle all levels of sprains and strains.”

How are sprains and strains treated?

“The basic treatment for sprains and strains is to immobilize the injured area for a certain period of time to allow it to begin healing. Once healing has begun, we will start you on an exercise or physical therapy regimen to help you gradually restore normal function, strength and mobility to the injured area.”

Do sprains and strains ever need surgery?

“Some sprains and strains do require surgery to be fixed—such as ligament tears in the shoulder or knee. But many can be healed without surgery. We have our own post-operative rehabilitation programs designed for patients with sprains and strains.”

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