So you rolled your ankle while playing basketball (or just slipping on the ice) and now you’re hobbling around the house whining, or perhaps you got in a fender bender and your neck is even stiffer than the drink that’s serving as your painkiller. Congratulations, you’ve probably got a sprain or strain on your hands! Sprains and strains are fairly common minor injuries that are very similar. Sprains relate to overstretching ligaments, and strains relate to the tendons and/or muscles. Now you’re wondering what the difference is between ligaments and tendons. They’re all part of your musculature, but ligaments attach your bones to each other, and tendons attach your muscles to your bones. Sprains and strains can be the result of both overuse and the sudden stress caused by falling, twisting, or otherwise injuring yourself. Muscles are more likely to sustain injuries when they are already tired, aren’t sufficiently warmed up, or if they lack the strength to properly support your body. Some sprains and strains can be treated at home, but others will do best with treatment from a doctor.
- Loss of range of motion
- Muscle spasm
Best Treatments for Sprains and Strains
Try not to hurt yourself in the first place. When your body is strong and prepared for physical activities, it can better fend off injuries. Weak muscles can’t support the body properly and are therefore more likely to be injured. Before you start your workout, don’t skip out on warming up, as stretching gives you more flexibility, which means it will take more to stretch a muscle to the point of a strain. Pay attention to your body during your chosen sport. Yes, you want to push yourself, but not too far. Tired, overworked muscles are also injured more easily.
Immediately after a sprain/strain injury, take some time to rest. Some of the most frustrating advice you can give to an athlete or someone who can’t afford time off for a work injury, but so important. If you keep putting pressure on the injured area, it’s only going to cause a more serious injury. Minor sprains and strains may only really need a couple of days before slowly returning to activity, but some can take several weeks. If sitting on the couch for that long will drive you nuts, cross-train with an activity that won’t stress out your injury.
Many sprains and strains will get better with simple home care. Most of the time, they mostly need time to heal. To help speed up the process and for pain treatment, you can try over-the-counter pain killers and R.I.C.E. Standing for rest, ice, compression, and elevation, this is the most common advice you’ll hear to reduce pain and swelling. Ice (or a gel pack) wrapped in a towel can be applied for 20 minutes at a time, a few times a day. Remove it when your skin is numb; otherwise you risk tissue damage. Also, increase your activity levels gradually.
Braces or elastic bandages might help your sprain or strain. To go back to that third step in R.I.C.E., bracing your ankle or wrist or whatever can reduce swelling and make it feel more stable, but it needs to be done right. There are ACE-type bandage wraps (Amazon sells a wide variety of them), elastic sleeves, and padded plastic braces that can help the first few days after pain starts. Whatever kind of brace you choose to try, tighter does not equal better. Your brace should not cause more pain, swelling, or numbness to your injury. A doctor can give the best advice here.
Some sprains and strains should get professional medical attention. If you’re in severe pain, have a fever and the sprained area in question is hot to the touch—signs of infection—and/or can’t put weight on your injury, go see a doctor. He or she will probably take x-rays to rule out fractures and maybe other imaging to determine muscular injuries. After pinpointing the problem, he or she will then probably prescribe one or more of the following things: Brace or cast, pain medications, physical therapy, and possibly surgery if you’ve actually torn something.
Exercises and Stretches for Sprains and Strains
- While seated or lying down, trace out the alphabet with your toes.
- Straighten your legs and flex your toes toward you and hold for ten to fifteen seconds for ten repetitions.
- Straighten your legs and extend your toes outward and hold for ten to fifteen seconds for ten repetitions.
- Hold a can or one-pound weight in your hand, palm up. Bend your wrist toward you and slowly lower it for ten repetitions.
- Hold a can or one-pound weight in your hand, palm down. Bend your wrist toward you and slowly lower it for ten repetitions.
- Place your palms on a table while your arms are straight and lean forward for ten to fifteen seconds for three repetitions.
- With your fingers closer to your body, place the back of your hands on a table with straight arms and lean away from the table for ten to fifteen seconds for three repetitions.
- Place your palm on your forehead while sitting up straight and looking ahead, then gently press your forehead into your palm and hold for five seconds for five repetitions.
- Place your hands behind your head while sitting up straight and looking ahead, then gently press your head back into your hands, holding for five seconds for five repetitions.
- Keep your upper body still while seated and slowly turn your head to the right until it hurts, slowly return to normal and then the same to the left for ten repetitions.
The most important aspect of dealing with sprains and strains is step number one, which was keeping your muscles healthy and strong in the first place. This should be your number one goal as an athlete anyway, or if your job is particularly physical. If any of your joints feel weak or tight already, or if a sprain or strain is finished healing, you can strengthen the area with simple exercises and stretches. You can find some examples in the sidebar, and your strengthened muscles will help prevent future injury. Feel free to gradually add more repetitions or weight as you strengthen, and if any of these exercises cause more pain, stop immediately. You need to be careful with neck strains in particular; seek a doctor’s advice if you have any radiating pain, numbness, or tingling into either of your arms. More serious neck strains also require different care, and might benefit from massage or chiropractic care. If you’re unsure about the severity of a head or neck injury, don’t hesitate to see a doctor.