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Sprains vs Strains. What's the Difference??

There are many scenarios where people get injured from activities that involve a fall or from lifting heavy weights. These injuries may cause confusion due to the severity of the symptoms and tissues that are affected. Some people may classify their injury as a "strain" while others may call it a "sprain." Though these two terminologies sound similar, there are key differences that are important to keep in mind in regards to recovery. So, what are the differences?

Sprains - Understanding Ligament Injuries

A sprain is an injury that occurs to a ligament, which is the tough, fibrous tissue that connects bone to bone and provides stability to joints. Ligaments are crucial for maintaining joint integrity and preventing excessive movement. Think of this tissue as your "static" stabilizers.

What is the Cause?

Sprains typically occur when a joint is forced beyond its normal range of motion, causing the ligament to stretch or tear. Common causes of sprains include sudden twisting, falling, or impact during sports activities.

What are the Symptoms? Symptoms of a sprain can vary in severity, from mild stretching to complete tearing of the ligament. Common signs include pain, swelling, bruising, limited range of motion, and instability around the affected joint. Sprains are generally graded on a scale of 1-3 based on their severity:

  1. Grade I: Mild stretching of the ligament without significant tearing. There will be mild swelling but the individual will be able to walk immediately after the injury occurred. Minimal bruising is usually present.

  2. Grade II: Partial tearing of the ligament, resulting in moderate pain and swelling. There will be moderate swelling and bruising immediately after the injury. It will be very difficult for the person to walk directly after getting this sprain.

  3. Grade III: Complete tearing of the ligament, leading to severe pain, swelling, and instability in the joint. There will be a lot of swelling and bruising present. The individual will not be able to put weight on this joint after this type of injury.

How are these Treated?

Treatment can vary depending on the severity of the injury. Sometimes if an individual sustained a grade 1 sprain, then they may be able to "walk it off" and apply the simply R.I.C.E. protocol. Grade 1 sprains can typically heal without any intervention but may require some guided assistance for proper facilitation of muscle activation and activity modifications to prevent worsening of symptoms.

A grade 2 sprain will require intervention to determine how severe the tear is. Imaging may be warranted to rule out fractures or additional soft tissue injuries. Physical therapy is recommended to help guide mobility, strength, and proprioception for return to function. A grade 3 sprain is when the individual may require surgery to address the torn ligaments. A brace for immobilization will definitely be used to create an external stabilizer while also receiving physical therapy to help address muscular strength, mobility and proprioception. Imaging will be warranted to rule out any fractures.

Strains - Unpacking Muscle Injuries

A strain refers to an injury involving a muscle or tendon, which connects muscle to bone. These injuries often occur due to overstretching or excessive contraction of a muscle.

What is the Cause? Strains can result from activities that involve sudden or forceful muscle contractions, improper lifting techniques, or overuse of muscles. This is typically seen after people are moving a lot of boxes or at the gym.

What are the Symptoms?

Common symptoms of a strain include pain, muscle weakness, muscle spasms, swelling, and limited mobility around the affected area. Strains are generally graded on a scale of 1-3 based on their severity

  1. Grade I: Mild stretching of the muscle or tendon fibers.

  2. Grade II: Partial tearing of the muscle or tendon, causing moderate pain and reduced function.

  3. Grade III: Complete tearing of the muscle or tendon, leading to severe pain, significant weakness, and impaired movement.

How are these Treated?

Similar to a sprain, strains are treated based on the severity of the injury. Grade 1 strains respond well to the R.I.C.E. protocol or using a hot pack. Additionally, strains may require:

  • Gentle stretching and strengthening exercises under the guidance of a physical therapist.

  • Anti-inflammatory medications to manage pain and swelling.

  • Gradual return to activity to prevent re-injury.

In more severe cases, strains might necessitate prolonged rest, specialized exercises, and even surgical intervention if the muscle or tendon is severely torn.

How can Hybrid Physical Therapy help?

Understanding the distinctions between sprains and strains is essential for accurate diagnosis and appropriate treatment. Remember, if you experience symptoms of either condition, seeking professional medical advice from a physical therapist or healthcare provider is crucial for a safe and effective recovery journey. At Hybrid Physical Therapy, we will provide the best education to allow you to understand the steps necessary for your recovery along with the best hands-on care and exercise prescription.

Let Hybrid Physical Therapy be the ones to guide you to the road to success and optimize your performance.

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