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Sprains & Strains – What’s the Difference?

man holding sprained and bandaged ankle

A strain is an acute or chronic soft tissue injury caused by overstretching or tearing a muscle, tendon, or both, whereas a sprain is the equivalent injury of a ligament. Both injuries can cause pain, swelling, and limited movement in the area they occur. If you are experiencing redness, swelling, pain to the touch, or limited movement in an area that has recently been injured or felt sore, you probably have a strain or sprain.

Strains often result from trauma, overexertion, and repetitive movements–like lifting a heavy item, exercising too hard and tearing a muscle, or injury from repetitive movements.

Sprains are usually the results of falling or twisting the wrong way and forcing a joint into an awkward position–like landing on an ankle incorrectly while playing sports.

Strains and sprains may seem like minor injuries compared to breaking a bone, but they still require rehabilitation and care–and can result in worsening pain or serious injury if not properly taken care of.

These injuries require more than a day or two of rest to recover from and should be taken seriously. Most people with a sprain or strain-related injury need anywhere from six to twelve weeks to fully recover. For those with more severe injuries, such as a painful tear in a frequently used body part like the leg or ankle, the recovery period can be much longer.

If you think you have sprained or strained your back, follow these steps:

Stop what you’re doing.

When your back pain suddenly flares up, discontinue the physical activity that you’re doing. It is important to protect your lower back from further injury. Don’t push through your workout or continue to do chores around the house.

Overusing a strained back muscle may worsen the damage and delay recovery.

Ice it.

Applying ice to your back can reduce blood flow to the injured area, which helps numb the pain and reduce inflammation and swelling. If you don’t have an instant ice pack on hand, you can try any of the following options:

  • Fill a small plastic bag with ice (and include water to smooth out the bumps).

  • Grab a bag of frozen vegetables from the freezer.

  • Put a wet sponge in the freezer. Once it’s frozen, put it in a small plastic bag.

  • Fill a sock with rice and place it in the freezer.

Apply cold therapy for no more than 20 minutes at a time with at least 2 hours rest between applications. Place a towel or protective barrier between your skin and the ice pack. Check your skin regularly to ensure it’s not being damaged by too much cold.

Change it up after a day or two of rest.

After 24 to 72 hours, you may consider:

  • Switching from ice to heat therapy. Place a heat pack against your back. The warmth will increase blood flow to the injured area and may soothe your strained muscles and connective tissues. Heat therapy can also reduce stiffness so you can more easily get up and exercise. Apply heat therapy for up to 20 minutes at a time with 2 hours of rest in between. When using a heating pad, always follow the directions carefully to reduce the risk of a burn.

  • Gentle exercises and stretches. Don’t stay immobile for too long. Your muscles could become weaker, leading to more pain and stiffness. Get up and walk around, even if for just a few minutes at a time. Incorporate gentle stretching exercises into your day to restore your mobility and protect your back against future injury.

Some pain and stiffness are usually expected for a week or two as your muscles heal. If your symptoms don’t improve or continue to interfere with daily activities, consider chiropractic.

Many studies have concluded that manual therapies commonly used by chiropractors are generally effective for the treatment of lower back pain, as well as for the treatment of lumbar herniated disc for radiculopathy and neck pain, among other conditions.


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