Sprains and Strains

Photo of a man with a thigh muscle injury

Condition or Illness – Sprains and strains

A sprain is an injury to the ligaments around a joint. Ligaments are strong, flexible fibers that hold bones together. When a ligament is stretched too far or tears, the joint will become painful and swell.

A strain is when a muscle becomes overstretched and tears.

Causes of Sprains and Strains

Sprains are caused when a joint is forced to move into an unnatural position. For example, "twisting" one's ankle causes a sprain to the ligaments around the ankle.

A strain may be caused by:

  • Excessive physical activity or effort
  • Improperly warming up before a physical activity
  • Poor flexibility

Treatment of Sprains and Strains

Remember R.I.C.E.

An Illustration of R.I.C.E. - Rest, Ice, Compression, Elevation.
  • Rest – Rest the affected joint immediately and for several days following the event
  • Ice – Apply ice immediately to reduce swelling. Wrap the ice in cloth. Do not place ice directly on the skin.
  • Compression – wrap a bandage around the affected area firmly, but not tightly, to limit movement.
  • Elevate – keep the swollen joint raised about your heart, even while sleeping.
  • Aspirin, ibuprofen, or other pain relievers can help. Do not give aspirin to children.
  • Keep pressure off the injured area until the pain goes away. This usually takes 7-10 days for mild sprains and several weeks for severe ones. Your doctor may recommend crutches.

Signs and Symptoms of a Sprain

Symptoms of a sprain include:

  • Joint or muscle pain
  • Swelling
  • Joint stiffness
  • Bruising

Exams and Tests

X-rays of the affected joint may be taken to rule out a more severe break; however they cannot show torn or stretched ligaments. Examinations testing range of motion and tenderness are typically performed and used to diagnosis a sprain or strain.

When to contact a medical professional

Go to the hospital right away or call 911 if:

  • You think you have a broken bone
  • The joint appears out of position
  • You have a serious injury or severe pain
  • You hear a popping sound and have immediate difficulty using the joint

Call your doctor for an appointment if:

  • Swelling does not start to go away within 2 days
  • You have symptoms of infection, including red, warm, painful skin or a fever over 100°F
  • The pain does not go away after several weeks

Prevention

The following steps may lower your risk of a sprain or strain:

  • Always warm-up and stretch prior to exercise and sports.
  • Wear protective footwear during activities that place stress on your ankle and other joints.
  • Make sure that shoes fit your feet properly.
  • Avoid high-heeled shoes.
  • Avoid sports and activities for which you have not trained.

We would like to thank the National Library of Health's MedLine plus for some of the information contained in this article.

Further Information

For more information regarding this topic and others please visit the National Library of Health's MedLinePlus website.