Sprains and strains are very common injuries that affect muscles and ligaments.
They often occur if you change direction or speed suddenly, fall and land awkwardly or collide with an object or person – such as when playing sports.
A sprain occurs when one or more of your ligaments have been stretched, twisted or torn, usually as a result of excessive force being applied to a joint.
Ligaments are strong bands of tissue around joints that connect bones to one another.
Common locations for sprains include the knees, ankles, wrists and thumbs.
Symptoms of a sprain can include:
- pain around the affected joint
- being unable to use the joint normally or being unable to put weight on it
The swelling from a sprain will often occur soon after the injury, but the bruising may not show until later or it may not show at all. Bruising can sometimes occur some distance from the affected joint, as blood from the damaged tissue seeps along the muscles and around the joint before coming close to the skin.
A strain occurs when muscle fibres stretch or tear. They usually occur when the muscle has been stretched beyond its limits or it has been forced to contract (shorten) too quickly.
Muscle strains are particularly common in the legs and back, such as hamstring strains and lumbar (lower back) strains.
Symptoms of a muscle strain can include:
- pain in the affected muscle
- muscle spasms (when the muscles contract tightly and painfully)
- loss of some, or all, of the function in the affected muscle
- blood collecting under the skin at the site of the strain – this is known as a haematoma, and it may look like a large, dark-red bruise
First Aid of these injuries follows the RICE procedure.
- Rest – stop the activity that caused the injury and rest the injured joint or muscle. Avoid activity for the first 48 to 72 hours after injuring yourself.
- Ice – for the first 48 to 72 hours after the injury, apply ice wrapped in a damp towel to the injured area for 15 to 20 minutes every two to three hours during the day. Do not leave the ice on while you are asleep, and do not allow the ice to touch your skin directly, because it could cause a cold burn.
- Compression – compress or bandage the injured area to limit any swelling and movement that could damage it further. You can use a simple elastic bandage or elasticated tubular bandage available from a pharmacy. It should be wrapped snuggly around the affected area, but not so tightly that it restricts blood flow. Remove the bandage before you go to sleep.
- Elevation – keep the injured area raised and supported on a pillow to help reduce swelling. If your leg is injured, avoid having long periods of time where your leg is not raised.