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Understanding Sprains and Strains -- Diagnosis and Treatment

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How Do I Know If I Have a Sprain or Strain?

Sprains and strains, from twisted ankles to aching backs, are among the most common injuries. A sprain is a stretching or tearing of ligaments, the tough, fibrous bands of tissue that connect bones to one another at a joint. A strain is a stretching or tearing of muscle tissue, commonly called a pulled muscle.

To diagnose a sprain or strain, your doctor will take a detailed medical history and do a physical exam of the affected area. Often, the history and exam are all that's needed. X-rays may help rule out a bone fracture. In some cases, an MRI (magnetic resonance imaging) is advised to check for ruptured tissues.

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What Are the Treatments for Sprains and Strains?

Treatment of both sprains and strains focuses on control of the initial pain and swelling, followed by adequate rest to allow healing.

Most sprains and strains heal in two to three weeks. Doctors routinely prescribe the RICE treatment -- rest, ice, compression, and elevation of the injured body part immediately following the injury -- along with aspirin or ibuprofen to reduce inflammation and pain.

Elastic bandages may then be used to support or immobilize the injured area while it heals. A sprained ankle or knee often calls for crutches to keep weight off the joint for a day or two while it heals. In some cases, bracing or casting is needed. To speed healing, your doctor may also recommend physical therapy after the initial swelling is controlled.

WebMD Medical Reference

Reviewed by Varnada Karriem-Norwood, MD on March 12, 2014

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