It’s a question that patients who have sustained a soft tissue injury often ask their doctor: What’s the difference between a strain and a sprain (aside from one letter).
The confusion is understandable since both terms are often used interchangeably when describing the overstretching or tearing of soft tissues within and around various joints. Symptoms are similar, too: pain, swelling, and restricted movement of the joint.
However, there are some differences between strains and sprains. For one thing, a joint strain involves the overstretching or tearing of a muscle or tendons, while a joint sprain involves the overstretching or tearing of a ligament. A ligament is the tissue that connects two bones in a joint, which is why the most common location for a sprain is in your ankle joint. Tendons are the fibrous cords of tissue that connect your bones to muscles. The most susceptible locations for a muscle strain are in your lower back and the hamstring muscles in the back of your thighs.
Another difference is that with a sprain you may notice bruising around the affected joint. With a strain, you may experience spasms in the affected muscle.
Strains and sprains are common injuries, especially if you are involved in athletic activities or exercise, or if you have a job that requires prolonged repetitive motion or a good deal of exertion or heavy lifting. You can strain any muscle in your body, while sprains most commonly affect the joints in your knee, ankle, wrist or thumb.
Treatment for Strains and Sprains
Mild strains and sprains are treated with a technique known as RICE, which stands for:
· Rest: Try not to use the affected joint while it heals
· Ice: Apply cold to the area to help reduce swelling and inflammation
· Compression: Wrap the injured area in a bandage or trainer’s tape to help reduce swelling
· Elevation: Keep the joint elevated above the level of your heart to help reduce swelling; or, if your knee or ankle is affected, keep the joint parallel to the floor
If it’s a mild strain or sprain, you can expect to resume limited activities in a couple of days, whereas a moderate injury may take a week to heal. Of course, more severe strains and sprains – those requiring surgery to repair damaged or torn ligaments, tendons or muscles – will need a longer recovery period and possibly physical therapy to help you regain your strength and range of motion.
To help prevent strains and sprains, doctors recommend:
· Warming up and stretching before a workout or playing sports to give your joints time to prepare for physical activity
· Exercising regularly to keep your muscles strong and flexible
· Being cautious when there are slippery conditions (rain, snow, etc.)
· Taking breaks so you don’t sit or stand too long or put a strain on your muscles while performing repetitive motions
· Investing in proper exercise and sports equipment that provide you with the support your joints need
Strains and sprains are not always avoidable, but they are definitely treatable. If you are living with any kind of joint pain, an orthopedic physician can help. Call Orthopaedic Associates of Central Maryland at (410) 644-1880 to find out what can be done to help your joints.