The Difference Between Strains and Sprains
Some of the most common injuries that bring people into physical therapy are strains and sprains. While the typical lay person might use these words interchangeably, these words are actually used to diagnose two completely different injuries. Both have varying grades of severity, and both should be treated differently. Understanding the difference between the two and the nature of the injury you might have yourself is an important part of the rehabilitation process and in this post we will discuss just that!
What Are Strains?
Strains are injuries that involve a stretching or pulling of a muscle or a tendon. Tendons are portions of tissue that connect muscle to bones. Most often, patients will strain something like their hamstring or back muscles. Muscle strains account for the majority of sport-related injuries. When muscles or tendons are overloaded or overstretched, the muscle fibers can become damaged or even torn, resulting in a strain. For clinical purposes, a muscle strain can be categorized into 3 different grades, depending on the severity. A grade I strain is considered a mild strain that can create tenderness and mild pain, but does not actually result in impairment of the muscle. In other words, there is no loss in the range of motion of the muscle and no loss of strength. A grade II strain is slightly more intense. In this case there may be some tearing in the muscle fibers, noticeable decreased range of motion and loss of strength, as well as marked tenderness of the affected muscle. Finally, a grade III strain will often create immediate pain, a palpable defect in the muscle, and swelling, which is indicative of ruptured fibers or a complete tear of the muscle. In short, the amount of tenderness increases with the grade of strain.
What Are Sprains?
Sprains are quite different. A sprain is an injury caused by excessive stress on a joint and its supporting ligaments. Sprains can occur during a twist, fall, or direct blow to the body. Sprains can be described as mild, moderate, or severe. With a mild sprain, a ligament is overstretched, but the joint typically remains stable. A moderate sprain occurs when a ligament partially tears, which creates noticeable instability in the joint. Finally, a severe sprain ligaments will tear completely and separate from the bone. Often times, a loud pop, snap, or tear can be felt or heard. Although intensity varies, sprains almost always cause pain, swelling, and/or bruising.
How to Treat Strains and Sprains
In order to best treat a sprain or strain, it’s important to get an accurate diagnosis. So, someone who has sustained a muscle strain or ligament sprain should be evaluated by a medical professional right away. With both types of injuries, rest is an important component of the recovery process, and the individual should avoid using the injured body part until cleared by a medical professional. While icing is a common treatment, this is actually a very outdated modality. The temperature of the ice will temporarily numb your pain receptors, however icing will not actually help with any swelling. Swelling is composed of interstitial fluid, which can only be drained by your lymphatic system. If you’re trying to noticeably decrease swelling, icing will not do the trick. One modality that will help move out swelling and is supported by research is the use of compression devices. At OC Sports and Rehab, we utilize a pneumatic compression device for any patients with swelling and this has shown to be far more effective than icing an injury. We also utilize cold laser therapy to help decrease inflammation and speed up the tissue healing process, Graston tools to break up any adhesions or scar tissue, and moist heat &electrical stimulation to help keep the muscles and joints loose and relaxed. These modalities, coupled with use of the pneumatic compression pumps and gradual reintroduction to exercises and stretches, help our patients heal faster and return to their normal activities sooner than the old-school “RICE” method.
If you or someone you know has sustained a muscle strain or ligament sprain, come see us at OC Sports & Rehab. We have the tools and the staff to get you back to feeling your best as quickly as possible. Whether you are an athlete injured during a game, simply overdid it at the gym, or stumbled walking down the street, we are the right place for you!
To learn more, contact:
Cary Costa, PT