We’re only human and, if we are physically active in a fitness regimen or competitive sports, we are likely to suffer from a sprain or strain. It may be as simple as taking time off for healing or taking it easy on that injured limb or joint. A growing number of weekend warriors and fitness buffs are turning to physical therapy and sports medicine to get back in action as soon as they can without aggravating the injury.
The difference between a sprain and a strain is, respectively, damage to a ligament (a tissue connecting to bone) and to a muscle or a tendon (tissue connecting muscle to bone). That damage may be stretching or tearing. The symptoms almost always include pain, occasionally result in bruising, swelling and, all too often, immobility of the limb or joint, including knees, ankles, shoulders, hips, wrists, elbows, necks and even little fingers and baby toes.
Sprains: Let’s take the example of a severe strain to a joint like the knee or ankle when the ligaments of the joint are wrenched so violently that these strong connective tissues may be stretched and even torn. The joint itself will generally remain in place with a sprain, but the most serious tears may require surgery.
Strains: The connective tissue in this injury is the tendon, which secures muscle to bone and, like the ligament in a sprain, may be stretched or torn. This injury may be both acute— the immediate result of an injury— or chronic —the repetition of a damaging motion, as might be the case of a football running back repeating a stressful knee motion again and again. Preventive measures like conditioning and stretching are recommended to prevent chronic strains.
If you are lucky, both sprains and strains will be mild and heal on their own. The natural healing time for such injuries is often dependent on age, physical condition and previous injuries to the same tissue.
You might want to see a doctor if the pain and swelling persists beyond a few days, and it is always helpful to follow the RICE protocol inside of 48 hours after the injury: Rest Ice Compression Elevation. Physical therapists often recommend this treatment until swelling and pain subside so they can help you regain, even improve, mobility, flexibility and strength. And it’s not always about just getting you back to where you were. Often the goal is to improve one or all of the aforementioned to prevent reinjury.
Therapy for more severe strains and sprains should always be under the guidance and direction of a physical therapist, perhaps in conjunction with sports medicine protocols.
Sprains: We can offer strengthening and stretching exercises to strengthen muscle surrounding the affected joint, as well as joint mobilization techniques. Various stimulation protocols, including heat, ice and electrical help promote function.
Strains: Attention must be paid to the degree of the strains with a goal of healing the injured muscle and preventing the buildup of scar tissue. As with sprains, strengthening and stretching protocols have proven effectiveness. Then there is soft tissue mobilization to break up fibrous and scar tissue.
Healing the damage always comes before strength and mobility therapy. Physical therapists start with easing the pain. Then comes healing and strengthening and, finally, providing exercises and treatment that focus on preventing that injury from reoccurring.
Dr. David Saint completed his undergraduate degree at Lafayette College and earned his Doctor of Chiropractic degree and Bachelor of Science in Nutrition from Life University. He is a past board member of the Council of New Jersey Chiropractors and an active member in the Association of New Jersey Chiropractors. Dr. Saint is also a member of the International Chiropractic Association and the American Chiropractic Association. He is certified in physiotherapy and numerous chiropractic adjustment techniques including Gonstead, Thompson Drop, SOT, Full Spine, HIO, instrumentation adjusting, soft tissue mobilization, Manipulation Under Anesthesia, and the Webster Breech Technique for breech presented mothers.