What Are Strains and Sprains?

A strain is when a muscle or tendon (tissue that attaches muscle to bone) is stretched too far. A strain is sometimes called a "pulled muscle." Depending on the level of muscle strain, it may heal within a few weeks, but reinjury can happen.

A sprain is when ligaments (bands of tissue that hold bone to bone at the joints) stretch too far or tear. A sprain may can take 4–6 weeks to heal or sometimes longer.

What Are the Signs & Symptoms of Strains and Sprains?

Strains and sprains can cause:

  • pain, either at the time of injury or later
  • tenderness in the soft tissue, usually close to the bone
  • swelling
  • bruising
  • muscle spasms
  • weakness or pain when using or moving the injured area

What Causes Strains and Sprains?

Strains can happen when you put a lot of pressure on a muscle or push it too far, such as when lifting a heavy object. They usually happen when someone is active, contracting, stretching, or working body part. They're more likely when a person hasn't warmed up first to get blood circulating to the muscles. Strains are common when athletes return to a sport after the off-season. They often affect the muscles in their backs, necks, or legs.

Sprains are caused by injuries, such as twisting an ankle or knee, or from contact with another player. They're common in sports, but can happen any time.

How Are Strains and Strains Diagnosed?

To diagnose strains and sprains, doctors:

  • ask questions about the injured body part
  • do an exam, observing range of motion and doing strength tests

Depending on the injury, the doctor may order an X-ray or other imaging study to see if there are other injuries, such as a broken bone. Ultrasounds can sometimes diagnose a minor tear.

How Are Strains and Sprains Treated?

Treatment for strains and sprains usually includes:

  • rest, which is the key to recovery and preventing reinjury
  • immediate treatments to help with swelling, such as:
    • ice wrapped in a towel placed on the area for about 20 minutes every 1–2 hours
    • an elastic bandage wrapped around the area for compression or a compression sleeve
    • raising the injured area
    • immobilizing the affected area right away and keeping it still for a few days
  • warm compresses or a heating pad (after the swelling goes down)
  • strengthening exercises, especially eccentric strengthening exercises (movements that lengthen muscles)
  • pain medicine for no more than 1 week

Doctors may treat some strains and sprains and strains with a splint or temporary cast.

Can Someone With a Sprain or Strain Play Sports?

If you have a sprain or strain, you'll probably need to take some time off from sports. You can go back when:

  • the swelling goes down
  • the sport does not cause pain
  • the doctor says it's OK
  • you can participate without a limp
  • you have your full range of motion
  • you're back to full strength

What Else Should I Know?

Strains and sprains usually heal without any lasting problems. Be sure to follow the doctor's instructions so the injury heals as quickly as possible.

To avoid strains and sprains, do a good dynamic warm-up before activity. You can try jogging, high knees, butt kicks, and active stretching. After activity, do some static stretching (holding each stretch for 30 seconds or longer).

A coach, personal trainer, doctor, or physical therapist can show you how to do eccentric strengthening exercises to help with recovery and lower the risk of reinjury.

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Note: All information is for educational purposes only. For specific medical advice, diagnoses, and treatment, consult your doctor. © 1995-2021 KidsHealth®. All rights reserved. Images provided by The Nemours Foundation, iStock, Getty Images, Veer, Shutterstock, and Clipart.com.