Medically Reviewed by Dan Brennan, MD on August 27, 2020

Is It a Sprain or Strain?

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It’s all about what gets hurt. If you injure a muscle or tendon (which attaches muscle to bone), it’s a strain. Sprains affect ligaments, which connect the end of one bone to another. For both injuries, the answer is often RICE: rest, ice, compression, and elevation.


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Depending on where your injury is, you may need to keep weight off it for a day or two. Crutches, canes, and walking boots can help in some situations. If your sprain or strain is severe, you might need physical therapy. Your doctor can check your injury and advise the best treatment plan. In any case, ease back into activity slowly.


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To curb swelling and pain in the first 24 hours after a minor injury, apply a cold compress for 20-30 minutes. Then remove it for 20-30 minutes. You can use a bag of frozen peas. Or put ice cubes in a plastic bag wrapped in a towel to avoid frostbite. A menthol gel or spray may also provide cool pain relief. Don't apply heat in the first 24 hours of your injury. It may worsen swelling. Later, you can try it to relax tight, sore muscles.


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This technique can help keep swelling down. For the first day or two after an injury, wrap a sprain or strain in compression bandages. Your doctor can give you advice on what to use and how to apply it.


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This means raising your injured area. It helps to bring down swelling. Try to keep the injured area higher than your heart, if possible. If your injury was mild, give RICE a week. If you still have pain with noticeable swelling after that, call your doctor. (Of course, if it’s a severe injury, see your doctor right away.)

What Else Helps

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Sometimes, you need a splint, cast, or walking boot to keep your injured area still so it can heal properly. Your doctor can let you know if you need that. To recover from a sprain or strain, you may need to do exercises at home or work with a physical therapist. For a severe injury, you may need surgery.

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How to Soothe Bruises

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If you fall, bump into something, or get hit, you may get a bruise. It happens if small blood vessels below your skin break. To help bruises heal, use a cold compress right after the injury, then raise the injured area above your heart, if you can. Bruises usually last about 2 weeks. As they heal, they change color from red/purplish to yellowish. If a bruise is severe or swells painfully, see a doctor.

If You Get a Black Eye

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Don’t use a steak! Instead, apply a cold compress or towel-wrapped ice pack for 20 minutes every hour while you’re awake. Make sure to see your doctor to check on whether the injury is serious.  

Bump on the Head?

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The best way to cut the swelling and pain of most minor head bumps is with a cold compress or ice pack. Don’t immediately assume that a child with a head injury should get x-rayed. Still, for anyone, get medical help immediately for a bump if there's any bleeding from the head or face, severe headache or vomiting, unconsciousness, slurred speech, vision problems or pupils of uneven size, breathing issues, confusion, or convulsions.

Medication for Pain Relief

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Chances are good that your doctor will recommend RICE for your minor bump, bruise, sprain, or strain. But if you have lingering pain, talk to your doctor about over-the-counter or prescription relief that may include pills, patches, or assistive devices.

Crutches, Braces, and Boots

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If you can't put weight on a sprained or strained knee or ankle, your doctor may suggest a cane, crutch, brace, or walking boot to help as you heal. If you need a brace or assistive walking device, get your doctor's advice on how to use it.

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American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons.

American Medical Association, Handbook of First Aid and Emergency Care, Revised Edition, Random House, 2000.

Duke University Health System.

International Journal of Sports Physical Therapy, ”A Comparison of Topical Menthol to Ice on Pain, Evoked Tetanic and Voluntary Force During Delayed Onset Muscle Soreness.”

National Institute of Arthritis and Musculoskeletal and Skin Diseases.

The Nemours Foundation.