What Are Strains and Sprains?
Muscles contract and relax (almost like rubber bands) to help your body move. So a strain is exactly what it sounds like: a muscle that has been stretched too far. It's common for people to strain the muscles in their backs, necks, or legs.
Bones meet at joints, such as elbows, knees, or shoulders. That's where your body bends and rotates. Strong, elastic bands of tissue, called ligaments (say: lih-guh-muntz), hold bones together in the joints.
A sprain happens when those ligaments have been overstretched (mild sprain) or torn (severe sprain). Ankles, wrists, and knees sprain easily.
How Is a Strain Different From a Sprain?
Even though both can hurt a lot, strains are not as serious as sprains. Because a strain is pain in the muscle, it may start to hurt immediately or several hours later. The area will be tender, feel sore, there may be some swelling, and it might also appear bruised.
A sprain will probably start to hurt right away. Usually, the injury will swell and look bruised, you might find it hard to walk or move the injured part, and you may even think you have broken a bone.
How Does a Strain or Sprain Happen?
Strains often happen when you put a lot of pressure on a muscle or you push it too far, such as when lifting a heavy object. Strains can be more likely to happen if you haven't warmed up first to get blood circulating to the muscles. They're also common for someone returning to a sport after the off-season. That first time playing softball after a long winter off might lead to a strained calf or thigh muscle.
Sprains are caused by injuries, such as twisting your ankle. This kind of injury is common in sports, but also can happen any time you trip or fall. One mom sprained her ankle when she got tangled in the pants she was trying to put on!
If You Get a Strain or Sprain
Stop! That's the word to remember if you get a strain or sprain. Don't use the part of your body that's hurt. That means not walking on a hurt ankle or using a hurt arm. Tell a grown-up right away so he or she can get you to a doctor, if necessary.
It can be hard to tell the difference between a sprain and a broken bone, so it's often a good idea to see a doctor. In some cases, you might need to go to the emergency department.
What Will the Doctor Do?
First, a doctor will look at your injury. He or she may gently touch the area, check the color, feel if your skin is warm or cold, and look for swelling and tenderness. If you hurt your ankle, your doctor might ask to see if you can stand on it. In some cases, the doctor will order an X-ray to tell if the bone is broken.
If you have a strain, the doctor will probably tell you to rest the injury and maybe take some pain medication.
If you have a sprain, the doctor might have you wear a splint or temporary cast to support and protect the injured area. He or she may wrap the injury with an elastic bandage to reduce swelling and provide extra support. Also, the doctor may tell your mom or dad to give you pain medication. The doctor will also ask you to rest the injured area and not play sports until it is healed.
What Should You Do Now?
It's very important to follow your doctor's instructions. When you get home, remember RICE. We're not talking about the food! RICE is a way to remember how to take care of your injury. It stands for Rest, Ice, Compression, and Elevation.
- Rest the injured part of the body.
- Apply ice or cold packs to the injury during the first day. Apply the ice for short periods of time (like 10-20 minutes at a time). Don’t keep ice on the area continuously. Make sure to keep a towel between the ice and your skin. Ice helps bring down swelling, so the injured area will be less puffy.
- Wear an elastic compression (say: kum-preh-shun) bandage or splint if it is recommended by your doctor. Compression means to apply or press something together. When an injury is wrapped firmly, the pressure prevents and decreases swelling (puffiness). Make sure it is not wrapped too tightly because that could prevent good blood flow, which is really important.
- Elevation means raising the injured part so it's higher than your heart. You can use pillows to raise it up. This also prevents swelling.
After 24 hours, your doctor may say its OK to use warm compresses or a heating pad for short periods of time to soothe aching muscles. This should be done with an adult's supervision to prevent overheating the area or burning the skin. Just like the ice, heat should not be applied directly to the skin. You should have a protective layer like a towel between your skin and the warm compress.
You may need to take pain medications that have been ordered by your doctor. It's good to remove any tight jewelry or clothing so you can have good blood flow to the injured area.
A strain takes about 1 week to heal. A bad sprain may take longer — as long as 3 to 4 weeks to heal or sometimes even longer. While your strain or sprain heals, take it easy and don't do stuff that could cause another injury.
If you've visited the doctor for your injury, you may have a follow-up visit to make sure everything is healing just right. When you're all healed, your doctor will give you the green light to do your favorite activities again!
Reviewed by: Yamini Durani, MD
Date reviewed: September 2010
Note: All information is for educational purposes only. For specific medical advice, diagnoses, and treatment, consult your doctor.
© 1995-2015 The Nemours Foundation/KidsHealth. All rights reserved.