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Sprain and Strain (Muscle Tear)

Muscle and tendon strains and ligament sprains send millions of people to the doctor each year. About 2 million people alone sprain their ankle. But there are also wrist sprains, back strains, ACL tears, and any number of other sprains and strains.

Sprains and strains cause pain and loss of range of motion. They force employees to miss work and athletes to take time off from their sport.

Many sprains and strains heal on their own, with rest. But some need surgery or physical therapy to help rehab and prevent future injuries.

Contact UPMC Orthopaedic Care

To request an appointment or for additional information, please call 1-866-987-6784 or submit a form online.

What Are Sprains and Strains (Muscle Tears)?

What is the difference between a sprain and strain?

The words sprain and strain sound alike, but they're two different things.

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

What are the types of sprains and strains?

The most common types of sprains are ankle sprains, knee sprains, and wrist sprains. You can sprain other areas, but those joints tend to be the most prone to sprains.

Doctors grade sprains based on how bad the injury is. There are three grades:

  • Grade 1 sprain: This is a mild sprain with some damage to the ligament. With rest and ice, it may heal on its own.
  • Grade 2 sprain: This is a moderate sprain, which means there could be a partial tear of the ligament. The joint is somewhat unstable and might need immobilization, such as with a walking boot or wrist splint.
  • Grade 3 sprain: This is a complete tear of the ligament, which can mean the joint is very unstable. The worst grade 3 sprains may need surgery to repair a torn ligament.

Strains are like sprains in that they range from mild to severe. You can overstretch a muscle or tendon and heal with ice and rest. Or you can partially or completely tear a tendon and maybe need surgery.

What Causes Sprains and Strains?

Causes and risk factors of sprains and strains may include:

  • Starting an intense exercise program too quickly.
  • Continuing to do physical work when very tired.
  • Wearing high-heeled shoes or footwear that doesn't fit well.
  • Picking up something heavy.
  • Not using proper lifting techniques.

These types of injuries are common in athletes. But they can happen when any of us overuses or puts too much stress on 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 can warming up the body before you exercise. The research on stretching before exercise isn't conclusive, but many health experts recommend it.

Why Choose UPMC Orthopaedic Care for a Sprain or Strain (Muscle Tear)?

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

Here are a few of the reasons why:

  • Experts in sports medicine. As experts in preventing and treating sports-related injuries, we know the issues 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 60 locations throughout the region where you can go for outpatient rehab.
  • Unmatched in research. We're leaders in the western Pa. region for NIH-funded orthopaedic research and clinical trials. We're always seeking better ways to diagnose and treat issues such as sprains (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

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What Are the Symptoms of Sprains and Strains (Muscle Tears)?

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

Both can cause a lot of pain.

Symptoms of a sprain

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

Symptoms of a sprain include:

  • Swelling and tenderness of the joint.
  • Bruising.
  • Stiffness.

If your joint looks out of place or your symptoms don't go away in a few days, you should see a doctor.

Strain (muscle tear) symptoms

Symptoms of a strain may include:

  • Sudden muscle pain, often from a certain movement or injury.
  • Muscle spasm.
  • Muscle that's sore to the touch.
  • Pain that may ease with rest.
  • Muscle weakness.

A mild muscle strain may cause 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 not being able to use that muscle.

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

How Do You Diagnose a Sprain or Strain?

To diagnose a sprain or strain, your doctor will do an exam and ask how it happened. During the exam, your doctor will touch the injured area, check for swelling, and test your range of motion.

Your doctor will also take a medical history to see if you've had the same injury before and what medicines you're taking.

You may need tests to confirm a sprain or strain diagnosis:

  • Sprains — X-rays to make sure you don't have a fracture. You can't see ligaments on X-rays, but doctors may want to look at the joint itself.
  • Strains — X-rays to rule out a fracture, even though you can't see soft tissue like muscles or tendons on an X-ray. Your doctor may order an MRI or ultrasound to determine the extent of the damage to your muscle.

Learn more about tests to diagnose sprains and strains

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Sprain and Strain (Muscle Tear) Treatments

Severe sprains and strains need medical attention right away. But for less severe ones, you may first try home care. As a rule, this means RICE:

  • Rest: Take time off from doing anything that causes pain. For example, if your ankle is sore and feels like it has a mild sprain, stay off it for a few days.
  • Ice: Ice the area for 15 to 20 minutes several times each day for the first few days of your injury.
  • Compression: Use an elastic bandage to wrap the area (this helps with swelling).
  • Elevation: Prop up your feet, legs, arms/wrist to keep the injured area above your heart.

Unless your doctor has told you not to, you can also take over-the-counter nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs). This includes ibuprofen, naproxen, and aspirin.

What are the treatment options for a sprain?

While a sprain heals, your doctor will probably tell you to:

  • Take NSAIDs 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. It can take three to four weeks for a moderate sprain to heal.

For severe sprains, you may need:

  • A cast or splint to keep the affected joint still.
  • Surgery to repair the damaged ligament. This has a longer recovery, and may include physical therapy to regain strength.

What are the treatment options for a strain?

Treatment options for strains vary by how severe the injury is.

Doctors can treat mild strains much like they treat sprains:

  • NSAIDs.
  • Elevation.
  • Ice and compression.
  • Rest.

Mild strains can take three to six weeks to heal (meaning you don't feel pain or muscle weakness any more).

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.

Contact UPMC Orthopaedic Care

To request an appointment or for more information, please call 1-866-987-6784 or submit a form online.

Learn more about sprain and strain treatments and recovery

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UPMC's HealthBeat Blog: