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Understanding Strains and Sprains

What’s the difference between a strain and sprain?

Strain Injuries

Strains and sprains present very similar symptoms but they are different injuries.

A strain happens to a muscle or muscle-tendon when it gets overstretched and the muscle fibres get injured or tear. This can happen in the belly of the muscle or the tendinous part of the muscle where it attaches to the bone.

Muscular strains are often caused by overexertion in sports and exercise, but can also happen if we bend awkwardly or when lifting something heavy. Strains most commonly happen in the leg, and back muscles.

Sprain Injuries

A sprain happens when the ligaments around a joint get injured. A very common type of sprain is an ankle sprain.

When we stress a joint beyond its normal range of motion the ligaments can become overstretched, twisted or tear, an example of this might be if we fall and put our hand out and sprain the wrist, or we are walking and stubble and twist the ankle.

Strains and sprains are common injuries in sporting activities like football, tennis, and running. The areas most commonly affected by sprains are the ankles, knees, wrists and thumbs.

Strain and sprain symptoms

Both these types of injury can have similar symptoms. You will feel pain, tenderness and weakness. You may also experience bruising, swelling and heat at the sight of the injury. Depending on the severity of the injury you may not be able to move the area or put weight on it without pain and you may also have muscle spasms and cramping.

How to treat sprains and strains

For the first 48 hours after the injury follow the RICE protocol.

REST- rest from activity and exercise that may aggravate the injured area.

ICE – apply an ice pack to the injured area. A bag of frozen peas wrapped in a tea towel works well. Apply ice for 10 to 20 mins every 2 to 3 hours.

COMPRESSION – apply a bandage to support the area, make sure it’s not too tight.

ELEVATION – keep the injured area raised. For example, place your ankle on a chair with a pillow

Take a look at the video below that explains RICE therapy.

For the first 48 to 72 hours avoid applying any heat and try to keep movement of the injured area to a minimum.

After 2 to 3 days or when the swelling and bruising has gone down, you may want to apply some heat to the area to encourage blood flow to the area.

Once you can move the injured area with minimal or no pain try to keep doing gentle movement to prevent the muscles and ligaments from getting stiff.

During the acute stages of the injury you can take pain killers like Paracetamol or Ibuprofen, but avoid taking Ibuprofen for the first 48 hours as this can slow down the healing process.

How long will it take to get better?

This will depend on the severity of the strain or sprain. Less severe strains and sprains will feel better after two to three weeks, but more severe strains and sprains can take months to fully recover from.

Avoid going back to strenuous exercises such as running or sports like football for at least 8 weeks as this may cause further damage.

Can massage help recovery from a strain or sprain?

During the first few days of a strain or sprain injury massage is best avoided. Once the swelling and bruising have calmed down and you are able to move the area with minimal pain you can consider massage to help speed up your recovery.

Your Sports Massage therapist may use gentle mobilisation to the joint to prevent the muscles and ligaments from stiffening up, they may also use specific stretches to prevent stiffness and tightness around the area, and apply techniques like effleurage which increases healing by improving blood circulation to the injured tissue and removing waste products.

During the healing process scar tissue is produced which is great at repairing damaged muscle and ligaments. The downside is that scar tissue is less flexible than healthy tissue and can be a cause of pain as well as limiting movement at the joint, and the ability of the injured muscle to stretch and contract efficiently.

Your Massage therapist will use a technique known as cross fibre friction to help soften and break down hard scar tissue which will allow better movement of the muscle or joint.

Once you are over the early (acute) stages of a sprain or strain you may have weakness in the muscle or joint ligaments. Your Sports Massage therapist can give you specific exercises to help strengthen the weak muscles and ligaments.