Ouch! I twisted my ankle! Did I sprain it? Or…did I strain it?
A sprain is an injury to your ligament. Ligaments are tough bands of tissue that connect your bones together in your joints. Sprains can occur when you fall, twist a joint, overextend a joint, or get hit forcefully. This can cause you to overstretch or tear the ligaments around a joint. Ankle sprains are the most common type of sprains, but you can strain the ligaments in any joint of the body.
Symptoms of a sprain include:
- Pain that is worse with movement
- Inability to use the joint
- Decreased movement at a joint or inability to bear weight
A strain is an injury to your muscles or tendons. Tendons are tough bands of tissue that connect muscles to bones. Strains can occur when you pull or twist a muscle or tendon. Strains commonly occur when you overstress a muscle, use poor body mechanics when lifting or moving objects, or have an injury. The most common types of strains are back strains and strains to the hamstring, which is the muscle in the back of the thigh.
Symptoms of a strain include:
- Pain that is worse with movement
- Muscle spasms
- Difficulty moving
- Weakness in a muscle
What Should I Do if I Think I Have a Sprain or a Strain?
If you have an injury and you think you have a sprain or a strain, contact your healthcare provider. Most sprains and strains can successfully be treated at home, and most people recover in about two weeks. In the event a sprain or a strain does not heal in a couple of weeks, it would need further evaluation. It is best to consult your healthcare provider to make sure you are getting the care you need based on your injury and symptoms.
Strains and sprains are usually treated the same way.
Your healthcare provider may recommend that you use RICE therapy for the first one to two days after an injury.
RICE stands for:
- Ice: apply ice the injured area for 20 minutes at a time, a few times per day
- Compression: applying a compression bandage such as an ACE wrap or other device to the affected area as recommended by your healthcare provider
- Elevation: elevate the affected area on a pillow
Your healthcare provider may also recommend medications such as ibuprofen, aspirin, naproxen, or acetaminophen for pain or swelling. It is always best to check with your healthcare provider or pharmacist before taking a new medication to make sure it is safe for you to take.
Most of the time, you will not need any special testing, but if your healthcare provider thinks you have a more severe injury, they may order an X-ray or MRI.
Your healthcare provider may recommend exercise or physical therapy once you start feeling better. The goal of therapy is to get you back to normal activity.
Preventing Sprains and Strains
Things you can do to prevent strains and sprains include:
- Maintaining a healthy weight
- Exercising regularly to keep muscles strong
- Eating a well-balanced diet
- Warming up before exercising and playing sports
- Wearing well-fitting shoes
- Using good body mechanics
- Making sure you do regular conditioning exercises, especially if you have a physically demanding job
- Stretching regularly
Cleveland Clinic, “Back Strains and Sprains,” https://my.clevelandclinic.org/health/diseases/10265-back-strains-and-sprains
Mayo Clinic, “Sprains,” https://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/sprains/symptoms-causes/syc-20377938
National Institute of Arthritis and Musculoskeletal and Skin Diseases, “Sprains and Strains,” https://www.niams.nih.gov/health-topics/sprains-and-strains#tab-prevention UpToDate, “Patient education: Muscle strain (The Basics),” updated December 3, 2019.