Sprains and strains are two of the most common injuries affecting the connective tissues, especially around joints. Sprains involve tears or stress on the ligaments anchoring joints together, while strains are the same kind of injury affecting the muscles and tendons instead. Both types of injury are caused by stress on a joint or muscle group, such as slipping down a set of stairs or having an accident during a sports game.
While sprains are almost always acute conditions, strains can be acute or chronic due to overuse.
Sprains are caused when a ligament is stretched or torn. This usually occurs when a joint is forced out of its normal position, which causes the ligament to twist or stretch in an unusual way.
Falling awkwardly on a limb, rolling on a joint, or twisting a limb can all cause sprains. Often, sporting injuries are to blame, while in other cases, for example, an ankle strain, the injury could be caused by weakened muscles around a joint.
Strains are caused when a muscle or tendon is stretched or torn. They can either occur as a result of an acute injury, such as overexerting a muscle while playing sports, or they can be chronic and caused by repeatedly moving muscles and tendons in the same way.
Strains are particularly common in sports like soccer, football, and hockey, when muscles in the leg and back are susceptible to straining. Sports like tennis, rowing and golf may lead to chronic strains in the arms and hands due to the same movements being performed again and again.
First aid for both sprains and strains usually occurs at home. Elevating the joint or muscle group, applying ice to reduce immediate swelling, and taking over the counter painkillers can keep the immediate symptoms under control.
Once the condition is stabilized, a doctor can determine how much damage was done to the muscles, tendons, or ligaments. Large tears are usually repaired surgically to prevent scar tissue from causing long-term pain and disability. Compression helps speed up healing and control pain, but it doesn’t always prevent re-injury. Careful training stretches the healing tissue so it’s stronger and more resilient.
Physical therapy is the best treatment for chronic or repetitive cases, but it may not entirely replace surgery either.
To reduce the risk of sprains and strains when playing sports, it’s important to thoroughly warm up the muscles, tendons, and ligaments before play. Stretching can help with this process, and it will also help to strengthen and improve flexibility throughout the body to minimize the risk of injury. Wearing supportive shoes is also very important to reduce the risk of falls and uneven landings, particularly in sports where jumping or collisions are common.
Physical therapists may be able to help professional athletes or avid amateur athletes to strengthen key areas of the body to reduce the risk of sprains and strains during play. It is particularly important to strengthen and condition muscles around joints.
People who have had a sprain or strain in the past may be more likely to develop the same injury again in future as the muscles, tendons, and ligaments could become weak. In these instances, physiotherapy may be needed to rehabilitate the damaged area fully before continuing with high-intensity sports.