UT University Health Services

Sprains and Strains

A "sprain" is a stretched or torn ligament or tendon. A "strain" or "pulled muscle" is an overuse injury that causes muscles to stretch or tear. It can be hard to tell a sprain from a strain, but for minor injuries, distinguishing between these usually isn't necessary to do so.

To help prevent strains and sprains:

  • Maintain a reasonable level of fitness.
  • Warm up properly before exercise.
  • Wear appropriate shoes or protective gear for activities.
  • Stop or reduce the intensity if an activity hurts.
  • Use proper lifting techniques.

You can treat most minor injuries like these yourself by applying the following self-care advice whether you've sprained your ankle or strained a leg or back muscle.

Signs and Symptoms

  • Sometimes a sensation of burning and/or a popping sound at the time of the injury
  • Pain and/or tenderness in the injured area
  • Swelling
  • Redness or bruising
  • Decreased mobility of the injured area due to pain

Self-Care

  • Use over-the-counter pain relievers as needed for pain.
  • Use R-I-C-E therapy:

    Rest: Rest the injured area as much as possible for at least the first one to two days. Then resume gentle movement and stretching of the injured muscle or joint, but not to the point of significant pain.

    Ice: Apply ice to the injury as soon as possible and for 20 to 30 minutes out of every two waking hours. Do this for several days and as long as there is swelling. You can use an ice pack made for this purpose, ice cubes in a heavy plastic bag, or a package of frozen vegetables. Wrap the ice "pack" in a t-shirt or thin towel. Don't put it directly on your skin.

    Compression: If possible, wrap the area with an ace (elastic) bandage to help decrease swelling. The bandage should be snug, but not so tight that it causes numbness or tingling of the affected areas or causes your toes or fingers to turn blue. If any of these things occur, loosen the bandage immediately.

    Elevation: Elevate the injured area as much as possible to minimize swelling -- ideally, above the level of your heart. If this isn't feasible with ankle or knee injuries during the day, prop your foot up in a chair as much as you can.

Red Flags

CALL THE UHS NURSE ADVICE LINE AT (512) 475-6877 (NURS) IF YOU EXPERIENCE ANY OF THE FOLLOWING:

  • An injured body part looks crooked or out of place
  • Inability to move the injured part or an extremely limited range of motion
  • Pain that is unmanageable in spite of using self-care measures
  • Increased swelling after 48 hours despite using elevation and ice
  • Symptoms that don't improve with self-care after four days

Put your B-A-C-K into it!

Lift correctly to reduce the risk of back pain or injury:
  • Balance: Create a wide base by balancing your body over your feet.
  • Alignment: Keep your back straight.
  • Contract: Contract your stomach and keep the weight of the object close to your body. Don't lift or move heavy objects over your head.
  • Knees: Bend your knees, and use your legs not your back to lift.


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