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Sprains and Strains

Ever stepped off a curb and twisted your ankle? How about lifting that heavy box only to feel that sharp pain in your lower back? Maybe you belong to the local softball team and tried to stretch a triple out of a double only to find that your leg had other ideas?

Sprains and strains happen, and whether they are a result of an awkward move or twist, or some other type of injury, knowing how to manage the initial injury and when to seek further care can make the difference on how fast you get back in action.

Where to start – Is it sprained or is it broken?

It can be very difficult to tell if an extremity (like an arm or leg, wrist or ankle) is actually broken or just badly sprained. In fact, both types of injury can be very painful, so pain or the lack, is not an indicator. Likewise, whether or not you can move the affected limb does not adequately determine whether something is broken or sprained. Many people have walked on broken legs while some people cannot put any weight on a badly sprained ankle. The only definitive method for determining a broken bone is an x-ray (or if the bone is sticking out.) Granted, you might be able to tell if something is fractured rather than sprained if the bone is severely angled, but regardless, you should seek further medical care at that point.

Seek medical care for any of the following:

  • Numbness/tingling below the injury site
  • Open wound at the injury site
  • Any deformity /angled bones
  • Loss of motion
  • Inability to bear weight (knees, ankles)

What if it’s just a minor sprain?

The key to managing a mild to moderate sprain or strain is RICE. (Rest, Ice, Compression, Elevation)

  • Rest – Quit using or get off the affected extremity. In the case of a back strain, lying down (or finding a comfortable position) will take some of the strain off affected muscles.
  • Ice – Applying ice to the affected area for the first 24 hours can help reduce swelling and keep some mobility and function. Be sure not to apply ice directly to the skin. After the first 24-48 hours, some practitioners recommend alternating ice and heat. You can use ice for about 15 minutes every hour.
  • Compression – If possible, you can use an elastic bandage on the affected area. Just be sure NOT to wrap the bandage tightly. This can reduce swelling and help provide some support
  • Elevation – If possible, raise the affected area above the level of your heart. This also will help reduce swelling.

What else can you do?

  • Over-the-counter medications such as acetaminophen or ibuprofen
  • Use of a splint or crutches as appropriate to the injury. A sling might be helpful for arm or shoulder injuries. If needed, you can tape fingers together to provide splinting of an injured finger to a non-injured finger.
  • Slowly begin light exercise to increase motion – Immediate stop any exercise that increases pain or swelling
  • Seek immediate medical attention for any pain or injury that does not improve within a week or worsens significantly.