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Five Things You Should Know About Sprains and Strains

It's been three days since you sprained your ankle playing a pick-up basketball game, and it's still swollen and painful to walk on. Is it time to see the doctor yet?
While a few days of icing and rest can be critical to recovering from a sprain or strain, most people do better if they resume weight-bearing motions as soon as their injuries permit.

Use it or lose it.

It applies to staying fit. It applies to memorizing a foreign language. And, as it turns out, the old adage applies equally well to recovering from common athletic injuries such as sprains and strains.

“In my mind, rest is a four-letter word,” said Family and Sports Medicine Physician Rob Johnson, MD, a University of Minnesota Health sports medicine expert. While a few days of icing and rest can be critical to recovering from a sprain or strain, “we usually find most people do better if they resume weight-bearing motions as soon as their injuries permit.”

We talked with Johnson about the basic information he shares with patients at University of Minnesota Health Sports Medicine Clinic. Johnson also helps care for University of Minnesota Gopher sports athletes.

What’s the difference between a sprain and a strain?
A strain is an injury of a muscle or tendon. Symptoms can vary, but usually include pain, swelling and weakness. A sprain is an injury to ligaments—the supportive structures that stabilize joints. Again, symptoms will vary, but can include pain, swelling and occasionally bruising. Additionally, a pop may be heard or felt at the time of injury.

What are the various grades of severity for those injuries?
In both sprains and strains, the damage to the tissue ranges from mild to moderate to severe. In mild injuries, the muscle, tendon or ligament is stretched, but doesn’t tear. In moderate cases, there is a likely a partial tear to the tissue. In severe injuries, there will be a complete tear of the muscle, tendon or ligament.

What can I do to prevent strains and sprains?
Nothing can guarantee that you won’t suffer an athletic injury, but there are steps you can take to minimize the likelihood of a sprain or a strain. A good, activity-specific warm up is one of the best measures you can take. 5-10 minutes of your sport or activity at 50 percent effort is all it takes. Participation in strengthening and stretching to condition your body for activity is another great prevention measure. Other tips include eating a well-balanced diet and wearing properly fit shoes or equipment.

At what point should I see a doctor for such an injury?
It can be difficult to tell how serious the injury is in the acute, or initial, phase. Rest, ice, compression and elevation are the basic first aid for a sprain or strain. If you’re unable to control your pain with these measures, or if you continue to be disabled in every day activity, it’s best to see a physician.

How is University of Minnesota Health well-positioned to care for such injuries?
The expertise of our sports medicine physicians is sought out by some of the nation’s top professional athletes and teams. We offer state-of-the-art diagnosis and treatment, including innovative musculoskeletal ultrasound that allows our physicians to evaluate muscle, tendon and ligament injuries in real time.

Can you tell me more about musculoskeletal ultrasound?
Just like ultrasound used during pregnancies, sound waves are used to create an image of the tissue being evaluated. There are several advantages to using ultrasound. We can use it to evaluate tissue in motion to see how an injury is affecting the function of the tissue. It’s also very safe for patients, as there’s no radiation exposure.