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Sprains and strains are usually minor injuries that are often caused by sports, exercise, or other physical activity.
A sprain is an injury to a ligament, the tissue that links bones together at joints. Sprains happen most often in the ankle, knee, elbow, or wrist.
Strains are tears in muscle tissue. They happen most often in the muscles that support the calf, thigh, groin, and shoulder.
Sometimes sprains and strains can be severe, needing weeks of rehabilitation.
Signs and Symptoms
The joint may be unstable or you may not be able to use the affected part of your body if the injury is serious, involving a muscle or ligament tear.
What Causes It?
Sprains generally happen when a twisting force is applied to a joint while it is bearing weight, which causes the ligament to stretch beyond its usual limit. Sprains tend to happen with sudden, unexpected movement, like a fall or a twist.
Muscle strains happen when the weight on a muscle is greater than the weakest part of the muscle can bear. Strains tend to happen during activities that require your muscle to stretch and bear weight at the same time. Being injured before or having limited flexibility may contribute to sprains. You are at risk for a sprain or strain if you do the following:
What to Expect at Your Provider's Office
Your health care provider may take an x-ray. If your injury is severe, your health provider may order other imaging tests, such as magnetic resonance imaging (MRI). Your injured limb may need to be wrapped in an elastic bandage or put in a soft cast.
Your health care provider may recommend that you treat the injury with RICE: rest, ice, compression, and elevation of the injured area. Use ice wrapped in a cloth or a towel -- do not apply ice directly to the skin. Apply RICE as needed over the first several days after your injury.
Ice reduces pain, bleeding, and inflammation. It may also reduce more damage to other parts of the joint. Some evidence suggests that applying ice and using nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) helps you heal faster. For more severe cases, wrap the affected area in an elastic bandage. You may need a cast to stabilize injuries.
Rest the injured area for about 7 days. Your doctor may refer you to a physical therapist, who will give you exercises to help you strengthen muscles, joints, and ligaments.
Over-the-counter pain relievers (analgesics) and anti-inflammatory medicines usually help. You should ask your doctor about the right dose for you. Don't use over-the-counter pain relievers for more than 2 weeks, and don't use pain relievers to mask the pain so you can keep using the injured area.
Complementary and Alternative Therapies
Some nutrients and herbs may help the body restore damaged tissue, reduce swelling, and provide pain relief.
Nutrition and Supplements
Herbs are a way to strengthen and tone the body's systems. As with any therapy, you should work with your provider to diagnose your problem before starting treatment. You may use herbs as dried extracts (capsules, powders, teas), glycerites (glycerine extracts), or tinctures (alcohol extracts). Unless otherwise indicated, make teas with 1 tsp. herb per cup of hot water. Steep covered 5 - 10 minutes for leaf or flowers, and 10 - 20 minutes for roots. Drink 2 - 4 cups per day. You may use tinctures alone or in combination as noted.
Few studies have examined the effectiveness of specific homeopathic remedies. Professional homeopaths, however, may recommend one or more of the following treatments for sprains and strains based on their knowledge and clinical experience. Before prescribing a remedy, homeopaths take into account a person's constitutional type -- your physical, emotional, and intellectual makeup. An experienced homeopath assesses all of these factors when determining the most appropriate remedy for a particular individual.
Acupuncture appears to help sprains and strains. One study of 20 people found that acupuncture improved feelings of soreness. Acupuncturists often apply moxibustion (a technique in which the herb mugwort is burned over specific acupuncture points) in combination with needling in order to strengthen or deepen the treatment for sprains and strains.
Many people visit chiropractors for sprain and strain injuries. In addition to joint manipulation, chiropractors use other treatments for sprains and strains, such as using ice and heat and ultrasound or electrical muscle stimulation. Chiropractors may also recommend stretching and strengthening exercises to help you recover. One study found that a balance training program reduced the risk of ankle sprains among high school soccer and basketball players.
In a study of people with ankle sprains, researchers compared chiropractic joint manipulation with an anti-inflammatory medication. They found that joint manipulation worked as well as the anti-inflammatory medication in improving pain and flexibility. It worked better than the medication in improving range of motion.
Therapeutic massage may help increase circulation and may relieve spasm in surrounding muscles.
Your health care provider probably won't need to see you again unless your injury was severe or you have complications.
Once a muscle or tendon is injured, it is susceptible to injury again, especially if you return to full activity too soon. Sprains and strains are easy to prevent. Basic physical fitness and strength training with proper warm-up and cool-down reduce the stress to muscles and joints.
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Review Date: 4/10/2012
Reviewed By: Steven D. Ehrlich, NMD, Solutions Acupuncture, a private practice specializing in complementary and alternative medicine, Phoenix, AZ. Review provided by VeriMed Healthcare Network.
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