The game was amazing and your athlete played well, but now they are complaining of ankle or wrist pain from a slip and fall on the field. Just about everyone has, at some point, had a muscle strain, a ligament sprained, or a broken bone. How do you know how serious it is? Is it a strain, sprain, or fracture?
Painful and inconvenient at best, these injuries are caused by falls, accidents, sports or sometimes just moving incorrectly. Strains, sprains, and fractures, are distinctly different injuries with different symptoms although the pain can be virtually the same. And while severe pain definitely warrants a trip to the doctor or emergency room, mild discomfort can be watched and treated at home.
Sprains are a stretch or tear of a ligament, the tissue that connects two bones together. Ligaments stabilize and support the body’s joints. Strains are a twist or pulling that tears a muscle or tendon. Tendons are cords of tissue that connect the bones and muscles. And fractures involve chips or complete breaks in bones that are usually caused by accidents or bone weakness. While each injury refers to the musculoskeletal system, they are each a different type of injury.
Know the signs. Know the treatment
Here’s what to look for the next time you or your child turn an ankle, twist a wrist, or take a tumble.
Sprains can be mild, moderate, or severe with a corresponding pain level. With a mild sprain, the ligament is stretched while it may be partially torn if you have a more moderate sprain. If the sprain is severe, you may hear or feel a pop in the joint as the ligament tears completely, the bone separates from the joint. No matter what level of injury, all sprains result in pain, swelling, bruising, and inflammation. And if you’ve sprained the joint previously, it’s that much easier to do it again.
Sprain symptoms include:
- Pain Bruising and swelling
- Muscle spasm, weakness or cramping
- Feelings of instability or “giving out”
- Limited movement or difficulty with walking, moving or using an injured area
Strains are the result of stretching or pulling on a muscle or tendon. Some strains are the result of overusing the muscle or tendon with long-term repetitive movement. If you’re an athlete in the midst of intense training, you can get a strain from not resting the joint enough during training.
As with sprains, strains can be mild, moderate, or severe. In mild strains, the muscle or tendon is slightly pulled or stretched. Moderate strains result in slight tears to the muscle or tendon. Severe strains are serious injuries involving a ruptured muscle, tendon, or both.
Athletes are especially prone to back strains from jumping and twisting in a manner common to cheerleaders, volleyball, and basketball players. You may also hear about hamstring strains caused by kicking, running, or leaping which is common with football and basketball players.
Typical symptoms of strain include:
- Muscle spasm or cramping
- Muscle weakness
- Swelling and inflammation
- Difficulty moving or performing daily activities
If you’ve identified a mild strain or sprain, you can most likely begin treatment right away. The best way to remember is to use the acronym “RICE.” Rice stands for rest, ice, compression, and elevation. This treatment relieves pain, limits the amount of swelling, and helps speed healing. It’s best for soft-tissue injuries like sprains and strains.
To apply the RICE method:
- Rest: Don’t move the injured joint if at all possible.
- Ice: Apply an ice pack wrapped in a thin towel for about 15 to 20 minutes, 3 to 4 times a day.
- Compression: Gently wrap the area with an elastic bandage. Take care not to make the wrap too tight.
- Elevation: Prop the injured area up on a pillow, so it’s above the level of the head.
If you hear or feel a snap or grinding when the injury happens, it may be a broken bone. Other signs of a broken bone may include:
- Swelling, bruising or tenderness around the injury
- Pain when you put weight on the injury, touch it, press on it, or move it.
- The injured area may look deformed, and in severe breaks, the bone may even poke through the skin.
- You may feel faint, dizzy, or sick as a result of the break.
Sometimes though, the break is small or the bone may be just cracked, so you may not feel much pain. If you suspect it may be fractured, however, you need to get to a healthcare provider as quickly as possible to assess the injury.
While athletes are more prone to injuries, accidents happen in everyday life, too. It’s really impossible to predict when or where an accident will happen. You can reduce your risk of injury with a little prevention.
- Watch your weight. This helps you maintain balance, the key to avoiding many accidents.
- Exercise daily to improve strength and flexibility.
- Wear the right shoes for whatever you’re doing.
- Stick to a well-balanced diet that contains calcium and vitamin D.
- Keep your walkways and stairways clear in and around your home.
- If you’re overtired or in pain, don’t participate in sports. Instead, rest the injured area.
Sprains, strains, and breaks are all unique injuries resulting from both sports and everyday activities. A little prevention will go a long way towards avoiding injuries and keeping your joints in good working order.