Sprains and strains are common injuries that can happen to anyone but occur most frequently in people who participate in sports, perform repetitive activities, or are at risk for falls. Sprains involve the tissues that connect bones together (ligaments). Strains involve a different group of tissues, muscles, and tendons that connect muscles to bones. Mild sprains and strains can heal with rest and home care. Significant sprains and strains may require rehabilitation, surgery, or both.
Your skeleton is made up of bones of all sizes and shapes. Some bones form joints that allow movement. Muscles are strong bands of tissue that contract and relax to move bones. Muscles are attached to bones by tendons, a fibrous tissue. Some bones in the body are connected together by ligaments, strong tissues that provide stability and support.
A sprain describes an injury to a ligament that connects two bones. A ligament can stretch or tear if the bones in a joint move out of position from a force, such as a fall or direct contact with another person during sports. For example, an ankle or wrist sprain can result from a fall.
A strain describes an injury to a muscle or tendon. Muscles and tendons can be injured from overuse, overstretching, repetitive motions, sports injury, or a direct force, such as being hit. For example, back strain may occur in people who perform repetitive heavy lifting.
A sprain causes pain, bruising, and swelling. You may hear or feel a pop when the injury occurs. A severe sprain causes intense pain at the time of injury, followed by difficulty moving a joint.
A strain causes muscle pain, weakness, cramping, spasm, or swelling. Moderate to severe sprains can result in muscle tearing.
A doctor can diagnose a sprain or strain by physical examination. Your doctor will ask you to move your joint and test your muscle strength. X-rays may be taken if a fracture is suspected.
Immediately following your injury, you should elevate your joint and apply cold packs to prevent swelling. Your doctor will formulate a treatment plan based on the severity and degree of your injury. Mild sprains and strains may benefit from physical or occupational therapy following injury. More significant sprains and strains may require surgery or immobilization with a brace or splint for healing.
Am I at Risk
You may be at risk for strains and strains if:
• Your body is deconditioned or overweight
• You participate in sports, dance, or other challenging physical activities
• Your job duties entail repetitive movements
• You have experienced a strain or sprain before
• You are at risk for falls
Sprains and strains may be prevented by exercising and eating wisely to keep your body fit and healthy. You can help prevent sprains and strains by warming up and cooling down, respectively, before and after exercising. Be sure to wear the proper shoes and safety equipment for the sports or job duties in which you participate. Older adults should discuss fall-risk prevention with their doctors.