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First Aid & Emergencies

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Understanding Sprains and Strains -- Diagnosis and Treatment

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. If your doctor is concerned about further injury, 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.

A sprained ankle or knee often calls for crutches to keep weight off the joint for a day or two while it heals. In cases of moderate sprains, splinting or casting may be needed. Elastic bandages may then be used to minimize swelling and support or immobilize the injured area while it heals. Injured joints can be elevated above the level of the heart to minimize swelling. To speed healing, your doctor may prescribe medications like aspirin or ibuprofen to reduce inflammation and pain or recommend physical therapy to increase range of motion and stability of the joint after the initial swelling is controlled.

WebMD Medical Reference

Reviewed by Lisa B. Bernstein, MD on March 18, 2015

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