Sprains, strains and breaks: What’s the difference?
School’s out, and summer sports are in full swing. Sprain or break? We outline the three top musculoskeletal injuries, how to identify them and the next steps to health
If you’ve sprained your ankle, you know what severe pain is. But maybe that “sprain” was a strain … or possibly even a break. After all, the amount of pain in each case can be virtually equal.
With summer sports in full swing, educate yourself on the differences between sprains, strains and breaks, so you’re prepared for the next injury on the field.
So, what’s the difference?
A sprain is caused by an injury that stresses a joint and overstretches or even ruptures supporting ligaments. This can happen from a fall, twist, or blow to the body,
In a mild sprain, a ligament is stretched, but the joint remains stable and is not loosened. A moderate sprain partially tears the ligament, causing the joint to be unstable. With a severe sprain, ligaments tear completely or separate from the bone. This loosening interferes with how the joint functions. You may feel a tear or pop in the joint. Although the intensity varies, all sprains commonly cause pain, swelling, bruising and inflammation.
All sports and exercises, even walking, carry a risk of sprains. The areas of the body most at risk for a sprain depend on the specific activities involved. For example, basketball, volleyball, soccer and other jumping sports share a risk for foot, leg and ankle sprains.
Acute strains are caused by stretching or pulling a muscle or tendon. Chronic strains are the result of overuse of muscles and tendons, through prolonged, repetitive movement. Not getting enough rest during intense training can cause a strain.
Typical symptoms of strain include:
- Muscle spasm
- Muscle weakness
In severe strains, the muscle and/or tendon is partially or completely ruptured, resulting in serious injury. Some muscle function will be lost with a moderate strain, in which the muscle/tendon is overstretched and slightly torn. With a mild strain, the muscle or tendon is stretched or pulled, slightly.
Soccer, football, hockey, boxing, wrestling and other contact sports put athletes at risk for strains. So do sports that feature quick starts, such as hurdling, long jump and running races. Gymnastics, tennis, rowing, golf and other sports that require extensive gripping put participants at higher risk for hand strains. Elbow strains frequently occur in racquet, throwing and contact sports.
Bone breaks, unlike sprains and strains, should always be looked at by a health care provider to ensure proper healing. Call your provider if the pain does not subside or if the bone appears to be deformed. Seek urgent medical care if you have numbness, weakness, or poor circulation in the injured limb.
What Should I Do?
A severe sprain or strain may need surgery or immobilization, followed by physical therapy. Mild sprains and strains may need rehab exercises and a change in activity during recovery.
In all but mild cases, your health care provider should evaluate the injury and establish a treatment and rehab plan.
Meanwhile, rest, ice, compression and elevation (called RICE) usually will help minimize damage caused by sprains and strains. Start RICE right away after the injury.
If you believe your child or loved one has suffered a sprain, strain or break, seek medical attention. Head to your nearest Vanderbilt walk-in clinic to see a board-certified doctor with no appointment necessary. Find one today.