It’s happened to most of us⁠—you go for a run, climb the stairs, lift something heavy, and then comes that sharp pain in your arm, leg, or another part of your body. It may very well be a sprain, a common injury that can run the gamut between mild discomfort and serious injury. Sprains actually have a wide range of meanings, so if you hurt yourself, it’s important to understand what a sprain actually is.

What Is a Sprain?

A sprain is a ligament injury—ligaments are what connect two bones together in your joints. They are tough, fibrous tissue that is usually flexible enough to allow for the movement of bones. A sprain occurs when ligaments stretch or tear due to being pushed beyond their normal limits. They are usually caused by falling, twisting, or getting hit by something.

As anyone who has experienced them knows, sprains can be painful. The area in question will usually swell up and become tender to the touch, which causes movement to be limited. If a sprain occurs in an area like your ankle, it may be impossible for that foot to support your weight or further movement.

Engaging in sports or any physical activity is among the most common causes of sprains. Since they involve trauma to the body, sprains don’t just happen⁠—they always occur as a result of some sort of activity.

Stretching and being in good physical condition is key towards preventing an injury in the event of a fall. Muscle fatigue⁠—meaning overuse of a muscle⁠—is also known to be a key risk factor for someone who may suffer from a sprain. Furthermore, it is vital that anyone engaging in athletic activities has the appropriate equipment to protect themselves from injury.

That being said, some people are at a greater risk of suffering a sprain than others—namely, people who might be unfit or overweight. If you engage in more physical activity than your body is ready to handle, you risk hurting yourself, as you may put too much pressure or tension on your muscles before they are ready for the additional activity. As such, it’s important to ease your body into any physical workout. Always ensure that you consult the appropriate professionals about the best way to prepare your body for physical activity. Failure to do so will put you at increased risk for an injury.

Sprain vs. Strain

Sprains are often confused with strains⁠—particularly grade 1 sprains, which are the lightest type of sprains. Both terms are often used to describe the tearing or overstretching of joint tissue; however, there is a key difference.

As noted above, a sprain occurs when the ligaments that connect two bones become damaged in some way. A strain, on the other hand, is a lighter version of a sprain. It is what happens when the tendons that connect muscles to your bones are stretched too far or tear. Unlike commonly damaged areas for sprains⁠—your knees, ankle, or wrist⁠—the most common areas for a strain to occur are your lower back or hamstring.

The confusion between the two injuries is understandable. They both involve pain, tenderness, and difficulty moving. Both may result in inflammation. However, there are noticeable differences. Sprains often involve some sort of bruising, whereas strains usually will not. Furthermore, strains will involve muscle spasms, and this is something not usually seen with a sprain.

The treatment for mild sprains and strains are relatively simple and similar: over-the-counter medication, rest, ice, compression, and elevation are usually adequate. With time and appropriate healing, both a mild sprain and strain will heal relatively quickly, depending on the individual. Strains do not usually require medical attention or intervention, whereas more severe sprains might need extra care.

Seeing a doctor or another medical professional will assist you in determining if your injury is a sprain or strain. A doctor will likely perform a physical exam and send you for X-rays to determine if you have fractured or broken a bone. They may also order an MRI scan since it can provide greater insight than an X-ray. It can also determine if you have strained or sprained a part of your body.

Commonly Sprained Parts of the Body

It isn’t uncommon to experience sprains in day-to-day life. The most common types are:

  • Sprained Knee: A sprained knee is common when an individual plants their knee but then suffers some sort of trauma⁠—like an impact⁠—that causes the knee to be bent or twisted.
  • High Ankle Sprain: Ankle sprains are very common in the event of a trip and fall that twists the foot or ankle in an awkward way. Jumping and landing are also common ways that someone can get a high ankle sprain.
  • Wrist Sprain: This commonly occurs in the event of a fall⁠—a person may put their hand out to brace themselves for impact, and that impact is absorbed by the wrist, which bends at an awkward angle, causing a sprain.

While the above three are the most common areas to suffer a sprain, they are by no means the only ones. Remember, sprains are possible anywhere that there is a muscle or ligament that connects bones. As such, it is also possible to sprain your fingers, neck, or back.

Three Types of Sprains

Sprains, like other injuries, come in various grades and degrees. These include:

Grade 1: A grade 1 sprain is the least severe type of sprain. It typically involves an overstretching of a ligament, but not a tear. You may have difficulty moving the injured joint, and bearing weight will likely be painful.

Grade 2: This may involve a partial or small tear of a ligament, in addition to an overstretching injury. The area in question will be very painful to the touch and swollen. Bearing weight on the joint will be extremely difficult, if not impossible. This type of sprain may also involve bleeding under the skin, resulting in bruising.

Grade 3: This is the most severe type of sprain. Grade 3 sprains take the longest to heal and may require more intensive treatment. It involves a full tear of the ligament and will cause extensive pain, bruising, and swelling. Movement will likely be impossible, and bearing weight will be completely impossible.

A variety of tests can be used in order to diagnose the specific type of sprain. At Orthopaedics Northeast, we involve a full range of diagnostic testing to ensure the fastest recovery for you. This includes a physical examination, X-rays, and MRI testing. Other tests may be appropriate, depending on the specifics of the injury.

Ways of Treating a Sprain

The way that a sprain is treated depends on its severity. In most cases, the “RICE” acronym will work for treating mild to moderate sprains. RICE stands for rest, ice, compression, and elevation.

Under the guidance of a medical professional, you will want to ensure that you rest the injured area, moving it as little as possible and making sure that you don’t use it to support your weight. Many people who sprain their ankles and knees often use crutches to support their weight instead.

It’s also important to ice the area multiple times a day, as ice can reduce the swelling and help your body heal. Compression bandages also help to reduce swelling and pain. They also restrict movement, which can help encourage the healing of a joint.

Elevating the injured area is an extremely helpful measure. In this instance, elevating means moving the area in question above the heart. This will help to reduce the build-up of fluid in a joint which will make the healing process smoother.

In some instances⁠—like a grade 2 or grade 3 sprain⁠—RICE simply isn’t enough. Unfortunately, these types of sprains may require surgery in order to reattach a ligament. Not doing so may actually result in long-term damage to the joint, and will certainly result in an increased chance of future injury. Physical therapy will also likely be necessary in these instances in order to ensure that the injury heals as well as possible.

If you have suffered a sprain and are experiencing pain or discomfort, or believe that you may have suffered an injury, don’t wait until the pain becomes unbearable. Instead, reach out to us at Mobility Bone & Joint Institute. With offices located throughout Massachusetts and New Hampshire, we can help you address your injuries by providing you with expert medical care and the latest in diagnostic and treatment technology.

Do you have questions about the diagnosis and treatment of sprains at Mobility Bone & Joint Institute?

Call (978) 794-1946 or click here to schedule an appointment at our Andover, MA office.

Call (603) 898-2244 or click here to schedule an appointment at our Salem, NH office.

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