Twisting your ankle can be tough, but you’re not alone. More than 1 million people go to the emergency room every year due to an ankle injury. These type of injuries can happen to anybody, which is why it’s a good idea to know all about sprains and strains and how you might prevent one.
Common Questions About Sprains and Strains
What’s the difference between a sprain and a strain?
Both sprains and strains are common injuries that involve stretching or tearing tissues. The difference lies in the type of tissues. A sprain occurs when a ligament (tissue connecting joints) is torn. On the other hand, a strain concerns a muscle or tendon (tissue connecting muscles). At first glance, sprains and strains seem the same, but their symptoms and causes are distinct.
Where do sprains and strains happen?
The most common sprain is in the ankle. But other tissues can be affected, including the hand, wrist or thumb. Since sprains often occur during physical activity, it depends on what sport you’re playing at the moment. For example, tennis players may experience wrist sprains because they use this area of the body a lot during matches.
Instead, strains affect other areas of the body more frequently, especially those muscles and tendons you use repeatedly and forcefully. Specifically, strains are common in your back and hamstring, though other areas can be affected as well. Sports that involve lots of running, like football or soccer, are often triggers for strains.
What are symptoms of sprains and strains?
Remember that sprains and strains affect distinct tissues, which means they’ll feel differently. While both are painful and limit motion, a sprain will involve swelling, stiffness and bruising. In contrast, strains will cause swelling, stiffness, cramping and spasms. This makes sense because strains involve muscles or tendons, and therefore cause muscular cramps and spasms. Sprains, on the other hand, more closely affect the joint area and may feel tender to the touch.
What causes sprains and strains?
Sprains and strains are most frequently caused by physical activity. In particular, impact during sports can force your joints out of alignment, or twist and overstress your muscles.
But you don’t have to be running a marathon to twist your ankle. Sometimes sprains occur in your home. Anytime you fall, twist or strain areas with force, a sprain can result. Household sprains are commonly caused by falls, especially on the side of your foot. However, knees can also be twisted out of place if you trip or when you’re doing cleaning chores.
In comparison, a strain requires overstressing muscles or tendons. This twisting or pulling occurs when you lift something heavy, do the same activity frequently or overstress the muscles in another way. Professional athletes commonly develop strains because of the physical toll on their bodies.
Moreover, different areas of the body are more likely caused by certain movements than others. According to the Mayo Clinic, sprains are often caused by these actions:
- Ankle: Running on uneven surfaces, or landing awkwardly after a jump.
- Knee: Turning or pivoting while playing a sport.
- Wrist: Falling and landing on a hand.
- Thumb: Overextending the thumb while playing a racquet sport.
If you’re experiencing symptoms of a sprain or a strain, you should consult a doctor to get the right diagnosis. He/she will examine the affected area and take an x-ray to check that you don’t have a broken bone. A good rule of thumb is if you can put weight on your foot and walk after twisting your ankle. If so, you probably didn’t break a bone. To confirm the diagnosis, a doctor can also take an MRI to see the tissues and ligaments more clearly.
What are risk factors for sprains and strains?
There are several risk factors for sprains and strains that may contribute to a higher likelihood of injury. First, factors related to the individual include:
- previous sprain or strain in the same place
- foot type and size
- general chronic ankle instability
- weak ligaments or muscles
- playing sports that involve jumping and running (such as volleyball, basketball or soccer)
Other factors related to the environment include:
- Surfaces: Especially those that are slippery or unsuitable for athletic activity.
- Equipment: Including unsafe equipment that doesn’t fit properly or that isn’t updated.
Natural Treatment of Sprains and Strains
So, you’ve got a sprain or strain. Now what?
If you’ve got a mild to moderate sprain or strain, you can start treating it by following the R.I.C.E. guidelines. These guidelines were created to reduce pain and promote healing in the injured area. However, if you’re experiencing a severe sprain or strain, you need to consult with your doctor for next steps. Occasionally, surgery may be needed to repair the injury.
The R.I.C.E. formula involves four steps to help your injury heal:
- Rest: Don’t walk on your ankle. Limit use and consider using a brace to stabilize your ankle.
- Ice: Apply ice to the injured area for up to 20 minutes at a time. This will help reduce swelling.
- Compression: Wrap your ankle in bandages to support the area and promote healing.
- Elevation: Prop your foot up at waist level to help blood flow.
You may also need a brace or crutches to support your injury, as well as take pain medications such as ibuprofen.
How long will a sprain or strain take to heal?
Often, ankle sprains will take a few weeks to heal. Sometimes, a moderate to severe sprain will last months. Your recovery time depends on your specific situation. If you’re concerned about your recovery time, talk with your doctor.
How can I stretch and strengthen the injured area?
Once the pain has gone away, you can start doing stretches to restore your range of motion. Later, once you have good range of motion, you can start strengthening the area. These exercises can be done at home once or twice a day to help your recovery.
The American Orthopedic Foot & Ankle Society has an excellent set of stretches to follow during your recovery. These stretches include foot lifts, foot tilts, pointing toes, ankle drops and squats. You can see specific instructions and photos for these stretches here. They also have a series of strengthening exercises that involve resistance, which will help prevent future injuries.
How can I prevent future injuries?
The prevention of sprains and strains involves several different areas. First, make sure you follow recovery guidelines so that your ankle completely heals. Don’t try to speed up your recovery, or you’ll put yourself at risk for re-injury. As mentioned, your recovery should include R.I.C.E., as well as stretching and strengthening exercises.
Once you’re healed, you’ll want to follow these guidelines to prevent re-injury:
- Warm-up and cool-down before and after physical activity
- Conditioning programs to support your sport playing
- Flexibility and strengthening exercises
- Using high-quality footwear and equipment
- Focusing on proper form and posture, such as for sprained ankle treatments
- Exercising on safe, flat surfaces
- Stopping exercising when you feel pain
- Seeing a regular physical therapist for stability and strengthen exercises
What other lifestyle changes should I consider?
In order to prevent re-injury, you should also consider a few key lifestyle changes that will promote general health. First, you should make sure to maintain a healthy weight. This helps injury prevention a lot, since excess weight can put extra pressure on your joints.
In addition, try to prevent falls. If you’re older, be sure to install handrails in your home. Also, if you live a colder climate, be sure to keep your sidewalks ice-free in the wintertime. You should also consider traction tape in any areas of your home that are excessively slippery.
Lastly, diet is extremely important for keeping your muscles strong and healthy. It’s recommended to eat a balanced diet that incorporates fresh fruit and vegetables.
Moreover, if you’re experiencing pain from injury, you might also consider an anti-inflammatory diet. An anti-inflammatory diet is comprised of fish, nuts, olive oil, fruits and vegetables, as well as cutting processed foods. This diet can help reduce pain in your joints.
Contact a physical therapist near you
If you’re experiencing a sprain or a strain, or a re-injury, it may be a good idea to see a physical therapist. A chiropractic clinic that includes physical therapy, such as Better Health Chiropractic & Physical Rehab in Anchorage, can help you recover from your injury and create a customized care plan for your injured area.
In general, physical therapists help improve patient’s ability to move and perform physical tasks through specialized exercises. This therapy is highly customized to the individual, depending on their abilities and/or pain. You can even prevent future sprains and strains by getting expert advice from a physical therapist.
Dr. Brent Wells is a graduate of the University of Nevada where he earned his bachelor of science degree before moving on to complete his doctorate from Western States Chiropractic College. He founded Better Health Chiropractic & Physical Rehab in Alaska in 1998. He became passionate about being a chiropractor after his own experiences with hurried, unprofessional healthcare providers. The goal for Dr. Wells is to treat his patients with care and compassion while providing them with a better quality of life through his professional treatment.