Sprains and Strains – Melina Mirzaei, Kinesiologist

Sprains and strains of all kinds are common injuries that we see regularly in the clinic. There is a difference between the two, although the terms are often (mistakenly) used interchangeably. Let’s see if we can clear up some of the confusion…

Sprains

Sprains refer to injured ligaments. Ligaments are a type of connective tissue which connect bone to bone. Sprains usually result from moving awkwardly- falling, twisting, landing from a jump, for example. If you’ve ever rolled your ankle or injured your ACL, you know that sprains are sometimes painful, and never fun.

Strains

Strains refer to injured muscles. As the name implies, a muscle strain usually means that you’ve either lengthened or shortened a muscle too much, too hard, or too quickly. Strains can be either acute or chronic. An acute strain could be a pulled hamstring after sprinting too hard during a workout or over-stretching in yoga, while chronic neck strain could result from repetitive poor posture while sitting at a computer.

Both sprains and strains are graded according to a scale of grade 1 (least severe) to grade 3 (most severe). In some cases, you may see swelling, bruising or redness around the injured area. Regardless of severity, initial treatment usually requires resting the affected area (see our post : “The R in R.I.C.E.”) to prevent further stress on the injured tissues and allow the healing process to begin. Your physiotherapist might also provide some form of taping or bracing, which performs the stabilizing job of the injured structures and eases the load on these tissues. Ice and compression can be useful to relieve the swelling and inflammation that usually accompany acute injuries such as sprains and strains. Total healing time depends on the severity of the injury, but can range from weeks to months. Your physiotherapist can give you a better idea of this following a full assessment of the injury. As with any injury, prompt treatment will generally result in the best outcomes.

How do I prevent sprains and strains?

Nobody likes being sidelined from the activities they love. Here are a few strategies to help prevent or minimize time off due to injury:

  • Perform a proper warm-up

There is evidence to show that performing a warm-up before activity can help prevent injuries. A proper warm-up should take at least 10 minutes; it helps to prepare your body for activity by increasing blood flow to the muscles, lubricating the joints, and improving neuromuscular control (see Lina’s post: “The Importance of an Adequate Warm-Up”). Make sure your warm-up is specific to the activity you are doing

  • Take the time to cool down

Cooling down helps to prevent abrupt changes in heart rate and blood pressure, and is thought to help flush waste products from muscles. Take at least 10% of your total workout time to devote to cooling down. Walk after your run, cycle slowly after a long ride, or do some gentle stretching after a hard workout.

  • Listen to your body

This is especially important when trying a new activity, or mastering a new skill. Your body will tell you when it’s not comfortable with something, usually by sending out pain signals. This is a protective mechanism – pain is usually a red flag that you are taking things a little too far. Always go at your own speed, and don’t be afraid to scale back on your activity if needed.

  • Strengthen and stretch

To help prevent sprains, make sure the muscles around your joints are strong. Some ligaments may not be very taut and strong (perhaps due to previous injury, or genetics), so think of your muscles as a support system for your ligaments.

Gentle stretching can be helpful to help prevent muscle strains. If you don’t have much range to stretch and lengthen your muscles, it is easier to go past this range and into injury territory. Adequate strength is also important – if your muscles are strong enough to withstand some load, they can more easily cope with the demands of exercise and everyday life.

 

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