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Sprains and strains

4-minute read

What are sprains and strains?

Sprains and strains are injuries to soft tissue. Soft tissues connect, support and surround bones and organs in our bodies.

The most common soft tissues injured are ligaments, muscles, and tendons.

What are the differences between a sprain and strain?

A sprain is a stretched or torn ligament, which is the soft tissue that connects two bones together at a joint. Common areas for sprains are the ankles, knees and wrists.

A strain is a stretched or torn muscle or tendon (the soft tissue that connects muscle to bone).

What are the symptoms of sprains and strains?

Symptoms of a sprain include:

  • pain
  • swelling
  • bruising
  • loss of power when moving the affected joint

Symptoms of a strain include:

  • pain
  • muscle spasms
  • swelling
  • bruising
  • trouble moving the muscle

What causes sprains and strains?

A sprain or strain can occur during exercise and playing sport. These injuries can also happen when doing everyday activities.

Falling, twisting, or getting hit by a force can all cause a sprain or strain.

Twisting or pulling a muscle or tendon can cause a strain, which can happen suddenly or develop over time. Back and hamstring muscle strains are common. Strains can occur when playing sports.

When should I see my doctor?

First aid treatment after a sprain or strain injury includes the following.

  • Rest the injured area.
  • Ice — apply a cold compress or ice pack for 15 minutes.
  • Elevate the injured limb.
  • Compression — apply a bandage after the icepack.

After first aid treatment for sprains and strains, see your doctor or a physiotherapist for further advice and treatment.

If your injury is causing a lot of pain and discomfort, it could be a fracture or dislocation. If you are not sure, see your doctor or go to the local hospital emergency department.

How are sprains and strains diagnosed?

Your doctor or physiotherapist will ask about your symptoms and examine the area.

X-rays are not usually needed for sprain and strain injuries. But they are sometimes needed to rule out a more serious injury.

How are sprains and strains treated?

Sprains and strains can take time to heal. It’s important to get the right treatment to help you recover faster.

To help decrease the swelling and pain the recommended initial treatment for a sprain or strain includes the following self-care measures.

  • Resting and not doing things that cause pain for at least 2 days.
  • Ice for 10-20 minutes at a time. Reapply every 2 hours for the first 24 hours. Do not apply ice directly to the skin – wrap the icepack in a damp cloth. Ice 3 times a day for the next few days.
  • Elevate the injured limb to reduce swelling.
  • Wrap the injured area in a compression bandage, and extend the bandage well beyond the injury.

You may need a brace or crutches to avoid putting weight on the injury.

See a medical professional if:

  • self-care measures are not helping
  • there is an obvious deformity
  • you cannot move an injured joint
  • your symptoms are getting worse
  • you are not able to put any weight on the injury

Your doctor may recommend pain medication and/or physiotherapy treatment. Surgery can sometimes be required for a more severe muscle tear.

Your doctor or physiotherapist may recommend strapping, taping or bandaging the injury for a few weeks

Physiotherapists also usually recommend special exercises to help you heal.

Can sprains and strains be prevented?

Many injuries happen when people suddenly increase the amount or intensity of their physical activities. It’s important to train properly and warm up before exercising to reduce the risk of sprains and strains.

Learn more here about the development and quality assurance of healthdirect content.

Last reviewed: June 2022

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