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March 20, 2018  |  Login
Sprains and Strains
by James F. Balch, M.D. and Mark Stengler, N.D.

Although most of us will experience a sprain or a strain at some point in our lives, very few people know the difference between the two kinds of injuries. A strain is what's commonly referred to as a "pulled muscle." As its name implies, a strain occurs when a muscle is overstressed by too much weight or by overuse. The injured muscle fibers may go into spasm, form knots, or swell up. If you have a strained muscle, you may feel a sharp pain when you try to use it, or you may experience a dull throb in the affected area. When muscles knot or spasm, the pain can be constant and severe. The worst symptoms of a strain will usually subside after a week, but they may leave behind an ache that lingers as long as a month.

Sprains, contrary to what most people believe, are not the result of muscle injury. In this case, the damage is done to a ligament, which is a band of fibrous connective tissue that holds bones together at the joints. When a ligament is overstressed, it may tear or stretch out of its normal position. You may even hear a snapping or popping sound at the time of injury. Not surprisingly, sprains cause immediate, acute pain. Once the first shock of pain passes, it is replaced by swelling and extreme soreness and sensitivity. In most cases, putting weight on the affected joint is out of the question. With proper treatment, the swelling goes away after about a week, but you may have pain for several weeks longer. The joint will usually feel stiff for months to come.

Most strains and sprains respond well to rest and home care, but you should be alert for signs that your injury needs a doctor's attention. If the pain is unbearable and if you can't move the joint, you may have a broken or fractured bone. Instead of going to bed, visit a doctor's office or the emergency room. Other red flags are discolored joints or severe swelling that doesn't go down after a few days.

Although sprains and strains are quite common, you can reduce your chances of injuring a muscle or a ligament. First, get some exercise on a regular basis. People who don't use their muscles and bones regularly are far more prone to damaging them. Second, always warm up your muscles before engaging in an activity. Stretch gently and ease into the movement. Finally, use common sense: Don't lift objects that are too heavy for you, and don't participate in activities that are painful.

Next: What are the Symptoms of Sprains and Strains

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