Sprains and Strains

Sprains and strains often result from sports or exercise, but can easily result from any physical activity. Sprains result from an injury to a ligament (the connective tissue that links bones together at joints), most often in the ankle, knee, elbow, or wrist. Strains are tears in muscle tissue, commonly occurring in the muscles that support the neck, thigh, groin, and ankle.

Signs and Symptoms

Sprains and strains cause pain and swelling. You may have joint instability or disability if the injury is serious, involving a muscle or ligament tear.

What Causes It?

Sprains generally result from a twisting force applied to a joint while it is bearing weight, which causes the ligament to stretch beyond its natural limit. Muscle strains occur when the weight load on a muscle is greater than what the weakest part of the muscle can bear. Strains usually occur during activities that require a muscle to be stretched and bear weight at the same time. You are at risk for a sprain or strain if you do the following.

What to Expect at Your Provider's Office

Your health care provider may take an X ray. If your injury is severe, he or she may also order an MRI. You may need to have the injured limb wrapped in an elastic bandage or put in a soft cast.

Treatment Options

Your health care provider will recommend that you treat the injury with RICE: rest, ice (wrapped in a cloth or a towel—do not apply ice directly to the skin), compression, and elevation of the affected area. Apply RICE as needed over the first several days following the injury.

Ice reduces pain, bleeding, and inflammation. It may also reduce secondary damage to other parts of the joint. However, the overall clinical benefit is not known. Bleeding and inflammation may play an important role in the healing process. Wrap the affected area in elastic bandage in more severe cases. Cast may be required to stabilize injuries.

Activity that involves the affected area should be limited for an average of seven days.

Drug Therapies

Over-the-counter pain relievers (analgesics) and anti-inflammatory agents usually help; however, it is important to consult your physician for adequate dosing. When injuries are more severe or chronic, however, continued use of analgesics may lead to aggravation of the condition. Analgesics should not be used to mask pain so that activity can be resumed without proper immobilization.

Complementary and Alternative Therapies

Specific nutrients and herbs may help restore the integrity of connective tissue, reduce swelling, and provide pain relief.

Nutrition Herbs
Herbs may be used as dried extracts (capsules, powders, teas), glycerites (glycerine extracts), or tinctures (alcohol extracts). Unless otherwise indicated, teas should be made with 1 tsp. herb per cup of hot water. Steep covered 5 to 10 minutes for leaf or flowers, and 10 to 20 minutes for roots. Drink 2 to 4 cups per day.

Flavonoids are found in dark berries and some plants. They help reduce swelling and strengthen the tissues that are affected by sprains and strains. The following may be taken in dried extract form as noted. The following combination of herbs reduces spasm and stimulates circulation. Black cohosh (Cimicifuga racemosa), cramp bark (Viburnum opulus), Jamaica dogwood (Piscidia piscipula), feverfew (Tanacetum parthenium), poke root (Phytolacca americana), and valerian (Valeriana officinalis). Combine equal parts in a tea (1 cup three to four times per day), or tincture (15 drops every 15 minutes until you feel better, up to eight doses; or 20 to 30 drops four times per day).

There have been few studies examining the effectiveness of specific homeopathic remedies. Professional homeopaths, however, may recommend one or more of the following treatments for sprains and strains based on their knowledge and clinical experience. Before prescribing a remedy, homeopaths take into account a person's constitutional type. In homeopathic terms, a person's constitution is his or her physical, emotional, and intellectual makeup. An experienced homeopath assesses all of these factors when determining the most appropriate remedy for a particular individual. Physical Medicine
Castor oil pack. Apply oil directly to skin, cover with a clean soft cloth and plastic wrap. Place a heat source over the pack and let sit for 30 to 60 minutes. For best results, use for three consecutive days.

Acupuncture appears to be effective for sprains and strains. One study of 20 people found that acupuncture improved feelings of soreness. Acupuncturists often apply moxibustion (a technique in which the herb mugwort is burned over specific acupuncture points) in combination with needling in order to strengthen or deepen the treatment for this condition.

Chiropractors commonly treat sprain and strain injuries, particularly those that involve pain and diminished function. In fact, a significant number of people who visit chiropractors do so for sprain and strain injuries. In addition to joint manipulation, applications of ice and heat, the use of ultrasound or electrical muscle stimulation are some of the ways chiropractors treat sprains and strains. Stretching and strengthening exercises are also often recommended to aid recovery and rehabilitation.

In a study of individuals with ankle sprains, researchers compared the effectiveness of chiropractic joint manipulation with an anti-inflammatory medication. They found that joint manipulation was as effective as the anti-inflammatory medication in improving pain and flexibility, but it was more effective than the medication in improving range of motion.

Therapeutic massage is effective at increasing circulation and may relieve spasm in surrounding muscle groups.

Following Up

Your health care provider probably won't need to see you again unless your injury was severe or you have complications.

Special Considerations

Be careful of recurring sprains and strains. Once a muscle or tendon is injured, it is susceptible to reinjury, especially if you return to full activity too soon. Sprains and strains are easy to prevent. Basic physical fitness and strength training with proper warm-up and cool-down reduce the stress to muscles and joints.


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