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Sprain (Muscle Tear) and Strain

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To request an appointment or for additional information, please call 1-855-828-9795 or submit a form online.

What Are Sprains (Muscle Tears) and Strains?

What is the difference between a sprain and strain?

The words sprain and strain are similar, but they're really two different things.

  • Sprains — occur when you stretch a ligament attached to a joint.
  • Strains (or torn muscles) — occur when you stretch a muscle too far or put too much pressure on it, such as the calf muscle.

What causes sprains and strains?

Causes and risk factors of sprains and strains may include:

  • Beginning a rigorous exercise program too quickly.
  • Continuing to perform physically demanding work when very tired.
  • Wearing high-heeled shoes or ill-fitting footwear.
  • Picking up something that is heavy.
  • Not using proper lifting techniques.

While these types of injuries are common in athletes, they can happen when any of us overuses or over stresses our joints and muscles.

Sprained ligaments and strained muscles become inflamed as your body responds to the injury. This can cause spasms.

Sprain and strain prevention

Regular exercise can reduce your risk of sprains and strains, as is warming up the body before you exercise. The research on stretching before exercise is not conclusive, but many health experts recommend it.

Why choose UPMC Orthopaedic Care for a sprain (muscle tear) or strain?

U.S. News and World Report ranks us as one of the best orthopaedic programs in the nation.

Here are just a few of the reasons why:

  • Experts in sports medicine. As experts in preventing and treating sports-related injuries, we know the problems athletes face. We know you want to stay active and keep playing the sport you love. We use the most advanced treatments and therapies to make that happen.
  • Interconnected services. We offer one place for all your orthopaedic needs. Our doctors, nurses, and physical therapists provide complete care — from diagnosis through recovery and rehab. We coordinate all of your care, so all you have to focus on is getting better.
  • Many ways to rehab. We have more than 70 locations throughout the region where you can go for outpatient rehab.
  • Unmatched in research. We are leaders in the western Pa. region for NIH-funded orthopaedic research and clinical trials. We're always seeking better ways to diagnose and treat conditions such as sprain (muscle tears) and strains.
  • Specialty programs. With specialists in each type of orthopaedic injury and condition, we have the experts to cater to your specific needs. The Hip Preservation Program at UPMC Orthopaedic care specializes in hip problems from the mild to the severe, including hip sprains.

Learn more about sprains and strains

UPMC's HealthBeat Blog:

Sprain (Muscle Tear) and Strain Symptoms and Diagnosis

Sprains and strains can happen almost anywhere in your body, including your lower back.

Both can be quite painful.

Symptoms of a sprain

Sprains can happen when a joint twists in an unusual position, or bends too far. For example, an ankle sprain occurs because your ankle has twisted and the ligaments attached around that joint over-stretch.

Symptoms of a sprain include:

  • Swelling and tenderness of the joint
  • Bruising
  • Stiffness

If your joint appears out of place or your symptoms do not go away within a few days, you should see a doctor.

Strain symptoms

Symptoms of a strain may include:

  • Sudden muscle pain, often as a result of a particular movement or injury
  • Muscle spasms
  • Muscle is sore to the touch
  • Pain sometimes subsides with rest
  • Reduced strength in affected area

mild muscle strain may result in some pain and weakness.

Severe muscle strains involve much (or even complete) tearing. People often hear the muscle "pop" when the injury happens. This may result in extreme pain and the inability to use the affected muscle.

severe muscle strain injury is an emergency. You should see a doctor right away.

Sprain or strain diagnosis

To diagnose a sprain or strain, your doctor will examine the injury and ask questions about how it happened.

He or she will also want to know if you've had the same injury before and any medications you are taking.

Tests you may need to confirm a sprain or strain diagnosis:

  • Sprains — x-rays to ensure that you don't have a fracture.
  • Strains — x-rays or an MRI to determine the extent of the damage to your muscle. 

Learn more about tests to diagnose sprains and strains

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Sprain (Muscle Tear) and Strain Treatments

A common treatment for sprains and strains is ibuprofen— a nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory medication (NSAID).

Some people are sensitive to NSAIDs. Some can't take them at all because of other medical conditions.

Always tell your doctor about any other conditions you have or medications you take before starting treatment.

Sprain treatments

During the healing process for a sprain (muscle tear), your doctor will probably advise you to:

  • Take anti-inflammatory medication, such as ibuprofen, for pain.
  • Keep the injury elevated.
  • Apply ice packs and/or compression bandages to the sprained ligament.
  • Rest.

If your sprain is in your knee or ankle, you may need to use crutches for a short time.

For severe sprains or muscle tears, you may need:

  • A cast or splint to immobilize the affected joint.
  • Surgery to repair the damaged ligament.

Strain treatments

Treatment options for strains vary depending on the severity of the injury.

Doctors can treat mild strains much like they treat sprains:

  • Anti-inflammatory drugs
  • Elevation
  • Ice and compression
  • Rest

Severe strains may require surgery if the muscle is too damaged to heal properly on its own.

Your doctor may also refer you to a physical therapist to slowly increase the strength in that muscle to avoid further injury. 

Learn more about sprain and strain treatments and recovery

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UPMC's HealthBeat Blog: