Sprains, strains, and breaks can be incredibly painful and sometimes difficult to tell apart. Often, the pain is similar in each case. While it’s best to ask a doctor to diagnose an injury, knowing the basics about sprains, strains, and breaks can help you be prepared and know when you need emergency medical attention.
Know the Difference
Sprains involve a tear or stretch in a ligament, the tissue that connects bones, caused by stressing a joint and overstretching or tearing a ligament. With less severe sprains, the ligament only stretches or partially tears. However, with a very severe sprain, you will sometimes hear a pop or feel the ligament tear. This tear alters how the joint works. No matter how mild or severe, all sprains can cause pain, inflammation, bruising, and swelling. Most sprains occur in the ankle, and once you’ve sprained your ankle once, you’re at a higher risk to do so again.
Strains take place when a muscle or tendon is stretched or torn. Strains can also take place when a repetitive movement over time strains the muscle or tendon. The back and hamstring are the most common sites for a strain. Often athletes who play sports that include lots of jumping, like basketball and volleyball, strain their backs. Kicking, running, and leaping can strain a hamstring. You can spot a strain by these telltale symptoms:
- Muscle spasms
- Muscle weakness
- Loss of function
Breaks include fractures, splinters, and complete breaks. You may have broken a bone if you heard a snap or grinding sound during the injury, if you experience intense pain, or if there is deformity present. If you think you’ve broken a bone, seek medical care immediately. If the bone has broken through the skin or you suspect an injury to the head, neck, or back, call 911 and do not touch or move the affected area. Especially look out for numbness, poor circulation, and weakness in the area of the break, which call for emergency medical care.
How to Treat Sprains and Strains
While breaks and severe strains and sprains always require medical attention, very mild strains and sprains can oftentimes be treated at home. The RICE system is frequently used to treat strains and sprains. Follow these four steps to relieve pain and minimize damage if someone suffers a mild sprain or strain.
- Rest. Avoid moving the affected part of your body, e.g., if you sprain your ankle, don’t overuse your hurt ankle.
- Ice. Place an ice pack wrapped in a cloth over the injury for 15 to 20 minutes three to four times a day. This reduces inflammation.
- Compression. Wrap the injury in an elastic pressure bandage that is tight but does not restrict circulation. The pressure bandage helps decrease or prevent swelling.
- Elevation. Elevate the hurt part of your body above your heart level, propping yourself up with pillows.
Wearing proper shoes, stretching, warming up before exercising, and conditioning to build muscle strength all decrease your chances of suffering a sprain, strain, or break. Mix up your exercise routine often to work different areas of the body rather than overworking certain areas.
If you think you’ve severely injured a part of your body or broken a bone, visit a CHI St. Luke’s Health Emergency Department immediately. Find the location nearest you so you’re prepared when minutes matter.