Sprains & Strains

Sprains and strains are soft-tissue injuries distinguished by the type of tissue they affect. Sprains occur in the ligaments, which are fibrous tissues connecting bones or cartilage in the joints. Strains are located in the muscles, tendons, or both, tendons being the fibrous tissues that connect muscles and bones. Sprains and strains are common in physically active people, especially athletes.

Serious soft-tissue injuries may require treatment by an orthopedic or sports-medicine specialist. The health care providers at Baptist Health are ready to assist you in repairing your sprain or strain.

How Do I Know If Have a Sprain or Strain?

Like other forms of bodily injury, sprains and strains can be a source of discomfort, inconvenience, and immobility. Here are the most common symptoms:

  • Pain
  • Extensive bruising or redness
  • Swelling
  • Numbness
  • Limited ability to use the joint or other injured area

When the injury is located in a joint, you may hear popping or clicking sounds. Muscle tears can also result in spasms or feelings of weakness and fatigue. If any of these symptoms persist, make an appointment with your physician.

What Causes Sprains & Strains?

The injuries associated with sprains and strains are mechanical in nature. Ligament damage occurs when overstretching or pushing a joint beyond its normal range of motion. This happens most frequently in the wrists and ankles. Tendon and muscle tears result from placing too much stress on a particular part of the body through lifting, pushing, or hitting. This commonly leads to strains in the back, legs, feet, and shoulders.

Soft-tissue damage can result from:

  • Falling on your wrists or outstretched arms
  • Jamming your thumb 
  • Pivoting sharply on your knees
  • Walking, running, or jumping on hard or uneven surfaces
  • Lifting heavy weights when you’re tired

What Are the Risk Factors for Sprains & Strains?

Several factors can increase the risk of sprains and strains:

  • Sports involvement: Soft-tissue injuries are common for athletes, especially those participating in contact sports such as football, hockey, soccer, and the martial arts.
  • Faulty equipment: Ill-fitting shoes or other protective gear make sprains and strains more likely. 
  • Fatigue: Tired muscles are more susceptible to mechanical failure and injury. 
  • Playing conditions: Slippery or uneven surfaces make playing conditions more hazardous.

How Do I Prevent Sprains & Strains?

Sprains and strains often result from being active in the wrong way. Being active in the right way is the key to preventing soft-tissue injuries. You should:

  • Warm up appropriately before workouts
  • Exercise regularly
  • Use sound judgment in deciding what to do, and how frequently to do it
  • Take rest breaks between sets or stations
  • Insist on quality training equipment
  • Focus on proper form during exercises 

How Are Sprains & Strains Diagnosed?

Diagnosis is typically based on a physical examination and medical history. Your physician will inspect the affected area to determine the nature and extent of your injury. In some cases, he or she will use an imaging technology, such as X-rays, MRI, or ultrasound, to gather additional information.

Physicians classify sprains and strains according to severity:

  • First degree (mild): ligament fibers are stretched but not ruptured. Muscles or tendons are over stretched but do not necessarily have tears, with full range of motion associated with pain.
  • Second degree (moderate): partial tearing in the ligament; partial tearing of muscles or tendons, with limited range of motion.
  • Third degree (severe): complete rupture of the ligament; a complete tear or rupture in muscles or tendons, with no range of motion.

You can experience pain at any degree of injury, with first degree being the least serious, and third degree the most.

How Are Sprains & Strains Treated?

Soft-tissue injuries usually require self-treatment. A standard approach, abbreviated as RICE, has four components:

  • Rest: Avoid activities that aggravate your condition, including exercise and physical labor. 
  • Ice: Treat the injured area with ice packs for 15 to 20 minutes at a time, with breaks in between. 
  • Compression: Wrap the injured area in a pressure bandage to control swelling. 
  • Elevation: Raise the injured area above the level of your heart, to reduce swelling.

You can control pain with over-the-counter medications. Some physicians recommend that you forgo aspirin and other NSAIDs such as naproxen and ibuprofen until you can be certain that there is a reduced risk of internal bleeding. Acetaminophen is a readily available alternative.

If these steps fail to improve your condition, see your physician. He or she can point you to additional resources, such as physical therapy. In extreme cases, such as a torn tendon, surgery may be appropriate. 


Untreated sprains and strains can sometimes linger as chronic conditions. Fortunately, if properly handled, many soft-tissue injuries heal quickly, allowing you to phase back into your normal routine in a week or two, though caution is required. More serious injuries take longer to overcome, especially if surgery and/or physical therapy are required.

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